A lifeline for sacred cows
Over the last few months the vets at IAR in Goa have been dealing with an increasing number of calls to treat cows.
Most of these are stray cows that roam freely on the roads, beaches and in the towns. Anyone who has visited any part of India will be familiar with the sight of herds of cows standing in the middle of a street and all the traffic going around them. Cows are sacred to the Hindus and are treated as such throughout India, even in areas where Hinduism is a minority religion. Goa is 60% Catholic, and where we are in the coastal area the proportion is higher, but the cows are still treated as sacred. Unfortunately, because the cows cannot be killed many of them end up as strays with no one to look after them. Despite this most of those you see are fairly healthy and survive eating rubbish, discarded vegetables from the market and picking through rubbish piles. Many cows on the beach have learned to beg from the tourists for melon rinds and banana skins.
We have also treated some cows that have owners. Most of these belong to small farmers who may have one or two cows and a few other animals and cannot afford to use a private vet. There is a subsidised state veterinary service in Goa for these people, but it is fairly limited. The state vets will not attend the stray cows.
The fact that we treat mainly stray cows means that most of the calls are to fairly serious problems, as opposed to the more everyday diseases that we would be used to treating in the UK. Typical problems we see are: maggot wounds in feet, overgrown feet, traffic accidents, broken horns, in-growing horns, broken legs and horn goring injuries from fighting.
Any open wound here will quickly become infested with maggots so prompt treatment is vital.
Another problem we see here is horn cancer. This is a cancer that starts in the sinuses of the cow’s head and gradually spreads up into the horn. Eventually the horn bursts and the cancer continues to grow. At this point it usually becomes infested with maggots. Early surgical treatment of this is possible, but more advanced cases have to be put out of their misery. Most cows in other parts of the world will not live to be old enough to develop this kind of condition. The equipment we have is fairly basic, as are the drugs. We have only been able to get hold of one type of antibiotic and no long acting antibiotics. Other kit includes ropes, a halter, saw and drugs such as sedatives, antibiotics, wormers, fly repellent, butox (which kills maggots) and euthanasia drugs.
We have recently bought a dart gun that we have just started using to sedate the animals that we cannot catch. This spares them and us a long chase and is much less stressful for the animal. It is only effective over short distances, but as most of the cows are used to people, we can usually get within eight feet of them.
The first animal we used it on was a bull, with a horn goring injury on its flank, that we had tried to catch on the beach. The bull had been running up and down the beach near the sunbathing tourists as we tried to get it, but when it ran through a restaurant we decided to give up and try the dart gun! We darted him at 6.30am the next morning before he went down to the beach. With the minimum of fuss we treated his wound. We went back to check him the next week and the wound had started healing and he continues to enjoy his days sunbathing on the beach.
One of the issues we have to consider when dealing with stray cows is continuity of care. Many of them we will only be able to see once, so we have to consider whether we can achieve much (ideally a complete cure), on that single treatment or whether the cow is better put to sleep. There is no point catching a cow and treating it once, if the condition requires continuing treatment, which we may be unable to give. This is especially relevant with the cows in the towns, which are always hard to locate and catch. Because of this some animals that have serious but treatable conditions are euthanised. Luckily many of the beach cows have predictable routines and can be checked up on regularly, such as, the one we darted.
The direct costs of treating the cows (ie the medicines) are fairly low, but the hidden costs are high per animal. It requires a vet and assistant and sometimes a driver for the Jeep. Most calls take an hour or more including the journey. So the main costs are in manpower time and running costs for the jeep. For this reason we need more funds to allow us to continue with this work. We are the only people who will respond to calls to sick or injured stray cows. If we can’t care for them then these serene and gentle animals are left to suffer untreated or to die a protracted death in the hot sun.