Updated February 3, 2019
Regardless of what species you’re taking care of at your animal sanctuary, it is your responsibility to prevent hardware disease from afflicting any of your residents. Fortunately, by adopting regular prevention strategies and frequent vigilance by your staff, you can greatly reduce the risk of hardware disease ever presenting itself on your sanctuary’s grounds, helping your residents avoid serious health repercussions.
What Is Hardware Disease?
Unlike many ailments that can impact residents at a sanctuary, hardware disease can strike any resident, at any time, in any part of the world. However, hardware disease is not a bacteria, fungus, or virus, but the consequences of consuming human-made objects such as nails, screws, staples, wire segments, coins, jewelry, or other small pieces of metal. Dining residents may ingest the material inadvertently when grazing on pasture, or eat the objects out of curiosity or to quell their appetite (especially in the case of large breed chickens or turkeys, who tend to suffer from a form of pica that attracts them to eat anything they can fit in their beak). Non-metal human-made objects, such as plastic, pieces of clothing, broken glass pieces, and twine, might also be ingested and cause serious health challenges. The health challenges caused by eating these nonmetallic objects is sometimes referred to as “software disease”.
Symptoms Of Hardware Disease
Hardware disease can present itself in a number of ways depending on the resident’s species and the type and amount of material consumed. Treatment can be quite complicated and may include antibiotics, heavy metal toxicity treatment, and surgery, depending on these factors.
Hardware Disease In Cows
Cows are most often discussed when it comes to hardware disease. In cows specifically, the disease may be referred to as bovine traumatic reticuloperitonitis. When cows eat foreign objects, the material tends to accumulate in their reticulum, where it could potentially pierce their stomach lining and lead to infections in their stomach, abdomen, or thoracic cavities. In more serious cases, the hardware could puncture significant organs such as their heart, which could cause organ failure and death. They should be immediately evaluated by a veterinarian if hardware disease is suspected. Symptoms may include:
- Depression and lack of appetite
- Teeth grinding
- Reluctance to move or walking with an arched back or odd gait to avoid pain
- Reduced rumen activity
- Displaying symptoms similar to grain bloat
- Reduced defecation
- Shallow breathing
- If lactating, reduced lactation
- Elevated heart rate, fluid around the heart, or abnormal sounds around their heart
- Significant inflammation
Hardware Disease In Other Sanctuary Mammals
Hardware disease is much less often reported in mammals that aren’t cows in a sanctuary environment. This could be due to being more selective eaters, or by virtue of the different types of environments provided for them. However, hardware disease (and eating non-metallic foreign objects such as plastic bags) can certainly affect any unlucky individual who nibbles the wrong thing! If you suspect that someone ate something they shouldn’t have, contact your veterinarian immediately for evaluation and treatment options. Depending on the species, what was ingested, and how it settled in their body, symptoms may include:
- Lack of appetite
- Depression or anxiety
- Strange gait or reluctance to move
- Reduced rumen activity
- Reduced defecation
- Quick, shallow breaths and elevated heart rate
- Teeth grinding
Hardware Disease In Sanctuary Birds
Birds in a sanctuary environment, such as chickens, ducks, turkeys, and geese, are all highly susceptible to hardware disease. In fact, it is one of the primary killers of domestic birds. In addition to construction materials, birds have been known to ingest things such as coins, pins, pieces of foil, other shiny objects, and even dropped jewelry. These foreign objects can get lodged in the bird’s crop, puncture the stomach and organs, and metallic objects can also cause heavy metal poisoning if they break down and enter the bird’s bloodstream. Unfortunately for many birds, by the time they are heavily symptomatic, the disease is typically quite progressed and there may be little that can be done for them. A veterinarian can perform an x-ray and blood test to help determine hardware disease or heavy metal poisoning and suggest any potential treatment options. Symptoms may include:
- Difficulty walking or standing
- General fatigue or depression
- Lack of appetite, excessive fluid intake, or dehydration
- Weight loss
- Vision loss
- Drooping wings
- Watery, green or bloody droppings or other abnormal droppings
Hardware Disease Prevention
Always Be Vigilant
Hardware disease is best prevented by regular inspection of each resident’s living space as well as any pasture they have access to. No resident living space should contain any human-made objects that they could potentially ingest (or chew apart), especially near their food source. Regularly inspect all enclosures and fences for loose or dislodged screws, nails, staples, or pieces of hardware cloth or netting. Conduct any necessary repairs immediately and thoroughly.
When conducting new construction at your sanctuary, building additional fences or gates, or when tearing down old structures near residents, always keep hardware disease in mind as a concern. Always pass a strong magnet (magnet sweepers are a very helpful tool for this) over the area where you’ve used any screws, nails, or staples.
Food Source Concerns
For animals eating hay, you must keep track of all of the baling materials such as rope, twine, or wire as you open up each hay bale. Be aware that foreign material can be incidentally baled along with hay by your hay supplier. Be as thorough as you can in removing every piece of non-edible material that you can, and pass a magnet through hay that you are particularly concerned about. If your hay supplier frequently bales questionable materials, it may be time to explore other suppliers if available.
Rumen Magnets For Cows
For cows, it’s very important to have a veterinarian or expert safely administer a permanent rumen magnet for each individual at your sanctuary, if they don’t already have one. There are various designs of rumen magnets, but all of them perform the same task of attracting any metal objects that a cow may inadvertently consume and greatly reducing the risk of punctures or infections. Although the magnet and the hardware will never leave the cow under most circumstances, it is significantly safer than the alternative! If a cow happens to eat a lot of metal, a magnet may lose its effectiveness and require the placement of a second one; if you suspect this could potentially be the case, have a discussion with your veterinarian.
Hardware Disease Prevention For Birds
For birds, the above living space and construction considerations are important to implement, but also consider avoiding the use of galvanized metal feeders or waterers (to prevent zinc poisoning in at-risk residents), avoid any glass around avian living spaces, and avoid wearing dangling earrings or jewelry to avoid potential risks (some birds have been known to peck and eat shiny earrings right out of caregivers’ ears). Lawnmowers and weed whackers can send small metal shards flying when regularly used and should probably be avoided if possible in avian living spaces. Finally, check any straw or shavings for foreign objects before using them for bedding purposes.
If you are keeping birds inside a home environment, such as at a microsanctuary, keep in mind their love of eating small, especially shiny objects. You may have to bird-proof any area that they have free access to!
Large Breed Chickens are especially prone to eating non-food objects, so you must be extra vigilant in keeping their living space free of anything they could decide looks exciting to eat!
Traumatic Reticuloperitonitis | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)
Hardware Disease Of Cattle | University Of Missouri (Non-Compassionate Source)