The Yorkshire Vet Julian Norton plays to his strengths helping an equine specialist whose belted galloway cattle are having problems

I had a phone call from an old friend and former colleague the other day.

Julian's friend Ben has a cure all for any ailment.
Julian's friend Ben has a cure all for any ailment.

Ben and I enjoyed some fun times at the start of our mutual careers and we’ve stayed great friends since those halcyon days when it was a pleasure, a privilege and a thrill to be qualified and working as a vet.

We used to marvel in the pub on a Thursday evening – our mutual night off – that we were actually paid to do what we’d always dreamed of. Admittedly, we weren’t paid very much, but this didn’t seem to matter back then.

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My most valuable worldly possession was my mountain bike and, provided I could pay back my student loan and had enough spare money for a few pints on a night off and fish and chips on the nights when I was on call, then the world was a happy place.

Ben had grander plans though, and moved into the heady world of specialist equine practice. This was a good thing, because I recall his regular advice to dog owners: “Feed him moist green vegetables! Everyday!” It was his cure for most conditions.

Via a university residency, where he furthered his equine knowledge and gained a collection of letters to go after his name, he headed south.

Now he runs his own successful equine clinic and presumably has a healthier bank balance than he did in the late 1990s. He must have, because he’s acquired a small herd of Belted Galloway cattle and this is why he called me.

He explained the situation, describing with great pride how he, an equine vet, had managed successfully to take blood samples from the tail vein of each animal and then submit them to a laboratory to test them for causes of infertility and abortion.

But that was where his limited bovine knowledge ran out, and where I came in. Back in the old days, we worked very well together because Ben would do the horse cases and he’d leave any cattle stuff to me.

He had sampled the new cows, which had enjoyed some pleasant grazing on his estate (that was the image that I conjured up in my mind, at least) but had not enjoyed a successful calving time.

Most of them had lost their calves during pregnancy. Worse news still – every cow had come up positive for a condition called Neospora. This is an unusual disease affecting cattle and dogs.

The ‘Neo’ part of the name gives a clue that it is a fairly new and, I think it’s still fair to say, poorly understood disease; although maybe it’s just poorly understood by me?

In simple terms, it’s a bit like toxoplasmosis in sheep. Having written that sentence, I’ve immediately realised it might not help many readers. The bug is a strange little parasite called a protozoan and spends some of its life inside a dog and the rest in a cow.

Dogs don’t usually show illness, although I’ve seen a couple of rare cases where the pesky pathogen can cause neurological disease. It spreads from dog faeces to cattle and that’s where most of the disease appears, rendering cattle prone to abortion.

Worse still, if calves are born alive and survive, they too can be infected, perpetuating the disease in the next generation. Ben was up to date with the latest horse diseases, but less au fait with relatively modern cattle ailments.

I could only offer my best advice. To avoid access by dogs to his cattle grazing was already too late.

“Ben, I’d suggest that the best cure is to offer them all moist green vegetables.” Twenty-five years later, we still shared a laugh at this ridiculous treatment.