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Home / Research

When nasal discharge is a sign of disease

A cow at Tania integrated centre, a non-profit making organisation, which caters to children with physical impairments. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Dear Dr Othieno

I regularly read your informative articles in Smart Harvest. It educates us a lot on various lessons that are useful to farmers. I am a livestock farmer in Nyandarua County. I keep merino sheep and dairy crosses on a five-acre farm. I free range and supplement with fodder. I have realised lately that the cows and sheep are producing excess mucus. I think this is not normal, but I am not sure what could be the cause. Can you explain to me what might be happening?

Joshua Kanyari, Nyandarua County

Thanks so much for the compliments and for reading the Smart Harvest. Nasal discharges are normal secretions from the respiratory tract of animals. They are a result of normal physiological processes of the body. However excess or abnormal nasal discharges can be clinical sign of an underlying respiratory system disease. Abnormal nasal discharges can also be observed when there is a disease condition affecting the digestive system. You need to be a good farmer and be closer to your animals for you to tell the difference from normal and abnormal nasal discharges.

How do I identify abnormal nasal discharge?

Colour and thickness

Normal mucus discharge is normally thin and clear. In disease conditions, the mucus will become grey, yellowish or reddish. In disease conditions the nasal discharge becomes thick and may have a foul smell. The colour and thickness may change as the disease progresses.


Abnormal amounts of nasal discharge will be observed coming out continuously unlike in normal situations. Inspection of the pen will reveal mucoid discharges all over the place.


Presence of food particles in nasal discharges may indicate a problem with the upper digestive system, for example, an obstruction of the esophagus. While the presence of stomach content in nasal discharge may indicate a problem in the gastrointestinal tract.

Number of animals affected?

When many animals within your herd are affected, it is likely to be an infectious disease or an irritant within the environment. When single animals are affected, it is likely to be a cancerous growth/tumours, foreign bodies, and facial trauma affecting the nasal passages.

One nostril (unilateral) or two nostrils (Bilateral)

Unilateral discharge is indicative of a localised conditions involving the nose or sinuses, whereas bilateral discharge may indicate respiratory or systemic conditions.

Other accompanying clinical signs

Excess nasal discharge is likely to be associated with underlying disease conditions. Therefore, any other clinical sign increase in body temperature, difficulty in breathing, reduced appetite are warning signs that the nasal discharge is abnormal. Common accompanying signs include sneezing, coughing, eye discharge, attempts to hide the face.

What causes abnormal nasal discharge?


Abnormal nasal discharge will be accompanied by other systemic clinical signs like fever, reduced appetite and productivity. There are many livestock diseases that manifest with excess nasal discharge they include pneumonias, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, pasteurellosis,

Contagious Bovine Pleuropneumonia and Contagious Caprine Pleuropneumonia and aspiration pneumonia among other diseases.


Nasal bots are common in sheep. Infested sheep will have excess discharge from the nose and will also show disturbed behaviour such as snorting, stamping the front feet, running in short bursts and burying their noses into the fleeces of other sheep. Sheep may congregate in shaded places where the flies are less active.


Lungworms can cause excessive nasal discharge. Signs in infected animals show shallow breathing with the head raised, coughing, mucous from the nose, loss of weight and death.


Extremely dry, wet, and cold seasons normally cause an irritation of the respiratory system and a slight increase in nasal discharges may be observed.  Thus, this should not be cause of alarm but when the amount is excessive and the mucus abnormal it is time to call your veterinary surgeon.

Other irritants like ammonia which can arise from poorly ventilated livestock houses can result in excess nasal discharge.

Treatment and prevention

It is important that you call a veterinary doctor to examine your animals and establish the cause of the nasal discharge.  Only then can treatment be instituted. Treatment my range from deworming to use of antimicrobials or my require surgical treatment.

Prevention is based on good housing, control of external and internal parasites. Avoid feeding animals on dusty feeds but when dampening such feeds take care not to create conditions for growth of molds and reducing their palatability.

-Dr. Othieno was the Vet of the Year Award winner and works in the Division of Communication and Vet Advisory Services within the Directorate of Veterinary Services; [email protected]

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