Australian cattle dying mysterious deaths

Feb 14, 2014

—Vets stumped by “3D Syndrome,” suspect toxin

Cattle are dying in Australia’s southeastern state of New South Wales of unknown causes. The disease—called “3D Syndrome” after its three visible symptoms of drooling, diarrhea and death—has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of otherwise healthy cattle with calves being the hardest hit.

The concerning thing for Australian cattlemen is that not even the veterinarians are sure of what kind of issue they’re dealing with—virus, toxin, fungus, plant or other—let alone what it is.

“It’s weird. It’s one of the weirdest things. It’s pretty hard to comprehend what is going on,” said Australian rancher Terry Huntly to local news outlet Brisbane Times. “Not knowing is the biggest issue. If we can find out what it is, we can watch for it. Plan or work our way around it or do something. But not knowing... we can’t deal with it.”

Official information on the disease is scarce and lacking—it’s hard to have official information on a disease only identified by a list of symptoms—but the Australian government has issued some general information for ranchers and veterinarians.

“A syndrome with the key signs of drooling and diarrhea leading to death has been reported by grazers in the Mossgiel/Hay/Ivanhoe area of [New South Wales]. While cattle of all ages have been affected, calves appear to be worst affected. Cases were first reported in 2006 and again in 2009 and 2013. Combined losses across all properties where disease is known to have occurred is in the hundreds.”

Huntly and other Australian ranchers interviewed by the Brisbane Times estimated the area losses at 500 head or so. It was unclear if those loss estimates came from all three instances where 3D Syndrome was suspected or in the most recent instance which started in October, 2013 and continues today, however.

The Australian government information on the syndrome describes the following clinical symptoms:

• Mild illness initially, described as “off-color;”

• Fever (41-42C/106- 108F);

• Off feed;

• Preferred to lie down;

• Drooling common (mild to long strings);

• Respiration shows increased rate and depth;

• Diarrhea common (mild to bloody);

• Serous or mucoid nasal discharge;

• Some weight loss;

• Deaths generally 1-5 days after first noting sickness with some taking longer; progression initially slow then rapid deterioration followed by recumbency and death;

• Generally little struggling prior to death;

• Stock previously in good condition;

• Very high case fatality rate (95-100 percent of affected).

Seeking the source of this disease has been a high priority, with the Australian government urging cattle producers to report anything they find. Official veterinarians have reportedly been testing for just about anything.

“Samples have been tested for exotic viruses and all tests have been negative. At this stage the cause of disease has not been identified. Work is continuing to determine the cause.”

Among the things Australian vets have been testing for are lead poisoning, foot and mouth disease, rinderpest, bluetongue, epizootic hemorrhagic disease, bovine immunodeficiency virus, bovine leukaemia virus, bovine malignant catarrhal fever virus, and others. So far all tests have come back negative or so inconsistently positive in tiny numbers of individual animals the few positives have not been counted as the cause.

According to Mark Schipp, Australia’s Chief Veterinary Officer and OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) Delegate, the current investigations do not offer “convincing evidence that an infectious agent is involved. Thus, the affected properties are not in quarantine.”

Additionally, the New South Wales Food Authority—the Australian state’s equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration—has stated the disease does not present a food safety issue based on current information and observations.

“NSW [Department of Primary Industries] will continue to conduct investigations on the properties to determine the cause of the 3D syndrome,” read an International Society for Infectious Diseases update communicated by Schipp. “Toxic or infectious agents are regarded as the most likely cause. A toxin such as a mycotoxin remains a strong possibility. Inorganic toxins including arsenic and lead have been excluded. The failure to detect an infectious agent in extensive testing from affected animals reduces the likelihood an infectious agent is the cause.”

Joe Schuele, Communications Director of the U.S. Meat Export Federation, replied to questions from WLJ. He said they are watching the development of 3D Syndrome in Australia for its potential to impact Australia’s live cattle trade with countries like Indonesia, which could create new opportunities for U.S. beef. However, at this point, he said it does not appear to be a trade-impacting issue, given how small and localized the effects have been.

He pointed out that the severe drought impacting the Australian herd is the biggest beef and cattle traderelated concern facing Australia at the moment.— Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor