Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) excluded in neurological cattle

A herd of 220 Brahman-cross cattle on a small property outside Darwin were investigated in November after the owner of the property reported unusual signs in the herd.

Affected cattle were initially observed with signs of salivation, anorexia, a stiff hindlimb gait and glazed and red eyes. Over a period of 24 hours, the affected cattle began to lie down, and were unable to get back up. Over a period of eight days, one cow had died, four steers had been euthanased and one steer had recovered, despite all receiving anti-inflammatory treatments.

The cattle had been in the same paddock for the previous seven months. They were generally in poor condition despite having access to supplemental grass hay for approximately one month.

Laboratory tests of two affected animals indicated dehydration and a mild degree of muscle damage. Testing for bovine ephemeral fever virus was negative.

Post mortem examination of a three-year-old cow was unremarkable except for bone fragments in the reticulum and green ironwood leaves in rumen content. The cow was in poor body condition. Laboratory tests on tissues samples did not reveal any histological lesions, including no findings suggestive of TSE detected at the brain sites specified in the Australian and New Zealand Standard Diagnostic Protocols — TSEs.

Ironwood intoxication is suspected.

The main effect of ironwood is a cardiac arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm), which leads to severe debilitation. In some cases, the degeneration of the cardiac muscle is observed during laboratory examination and testing. This was not evident in this case.

Figure 2 Toxic leaves of the ironwood tree

The ironwood tree (Erythrophleum chlorostachys) is endemic in the northern region of the Northern Territory. Cattle bred in endemic areas will not usually consume the plant. The leaves of the ironwood treeare highly toxic when ingested. As few as a couple of leaves are known to be lethal to cattle. The toxic agents are diterpenoid alkaloids. Young leaves of new plants are very attractive to hungry and newly introduced grazing stock.

Given the dry time of the year and scarce availability of feed, it is likely that the hungry cattle found the green ironwood plants palatable in this case.

Last updated: 27 March 2018