Dear Daktari Thank you for the good work you do of informing farmers on animal health issues. I have five dairy crosses that are healthy judging from their body condition and milk production. However, recently I noticed something unusual. They are drinking their urine on the ground or drink it when another animal that is urinating. While I have seen bulls drinking urine from cows I have never seen the same among cows. What might be causing this abnormal behaviour? [Theophilus Mwanzia, Machakos County]
Thank you Mwanzia for reading The Smart Harvest and for taking time to write back. Yes, as you rightfully observed, your cows are behaving abnormally. This is what we call abnormal behaviour, in veterinary language. This certainly points to an underlying condition which needs urgent attention before it gets out of hand.
PICA (Depraved or Abnormal Appetite)
PICA refers to abnormal behaviour in animals. It is characterised by eating of abnormal things – those that do not have any nutritional value and which are not among the animal feeds. These include eating/ chewing or licking objects like stones, plastic, bones, fence posts, soils, rags, clothes, tree barks or urine.
Drinking of urine is a common herd problem. This problem while indicating a mineral deficiency can result in the spread of diseases like Bovine Tuberculosis, Salmonellosis, Leptospirosis and Bovine Viral Diarrhoea and further expose a farmer to unforeseen economic losses. The vice is therefore undesirable and should be prevented.
In this type of behavioral abnormality animals start sucking and drinking their own urine or the urine of their herd mates or any urine that collects in the cow’s shade or environment. This abnormal behaviour is commonly seen in the animals of all age groups and especially common in individually housed bulls and in bulls used for draught (denoting an animal used for pulling heavy loads) purpose.
What causes it?
PICA is normally attributed to lack of minerals in the animal’s diet especially phosphorus or sodium. These two mineral elements are found in pastures and their inadequacy can result in an animal showing signs of PICA. Diets with low fibre, parasitism, under nutrition can also lead to PICA in animals. If this is the cause you will likely see this behaviour in almost all the animals in a herd. Mwanzia’s case is likely to be a nutritional problem as it is affecting all the animals. But where this is observed in one animal within a herd the cause is likely to be a condition in the brain. Boredom and animals not provided with water have also been observed to drink water.
How to stop PICA?
The rule of the thumb is to first find out the cause of the problem. If the cause is likely to be mineral deficiency, you need to give the animal supplements. This can be done through mineral analysis of the feeds which can be done in a veterinary laboratory. If you have not been feeding your animals on mineral licks, it is a time to start this or if you have been using one then consider changing the brand. Most importantly, consult your veterinary doctor for a proper diagnosis and effective treatment.
[Dr Othieno is a veterinary surgeon and the head of communications at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) Kenya. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of FAO]