Red water disease in cattle

Updated February 21, 2017

Red water disease can leave cattle dead before you even realise they are infected. This fast-acting and usually fatal condition is most common in certain regions and pasture conditions, some of which can be amended by better ranching practices and others that can be fixed with vigilant care of your cattle.


Death is often the first and only symptom of red water disease. Most cattle die within 12 hours of contracting the disease. Symptoms prior to death include rapid breathing, a high fever, weakness, anaemia, lack of energy and a dark red, foamy urine, which gives rise to the disease’s name. If you do happen to catch symptoms of the disease quickly enough, you can try antibiotics and antitoxin. Treatments are usually not successful because of the disease’s rapid nature.


Bacteria called Clostridium hemolyticum cause red water disease. The bacteria enter the cattle’s liver, where they eventually make their way into the red blood cells. The cattle’s red blood cells then burst, fatally sending haemoglobin and more bacteria into the bloodstream. The bacteria do not always lead to disease, but only do so when they are able to successfully attack an area in the cattle’s liver that is particularly low in oxygen. Conditions are ideal in cattle with liver fluke (a parasite) or livers damaged by abscesses, biopsies or similar conditions.

Risk Factors

Red water disease is common in alkaline soil, alkaline water with a pH of 8, and wet, marshy pastures with poor drainage. California is home to the first reports of red water disease--in 1916--and remains a hot spot for it, as do other western states. Warmer months during spring, summer or early fall are the riskiest time of year for red water disease, although it can infect cattle all year long. Cattle older than one year are most at risk. Younger calves have a level of immunity to the disease, although they, too, can become infected.


Vaccination is the key to preventing cattle red water disease. Vaccines build up the cattle’s immunity to red water disease and should be part of your livestock’s annual maintenance regimen. Plan on more frequent vaccinations, every three or six months, in higher-risk areas. Immediately remove any dead cattle infected with red water after death to prevent further spread of the disease. Improving field drainage conditions will also help prevent the disease, as will preventing liver fluke infestations.


A number of other conditions give rise to the same type of symptoms as red water disease. Have a necropsy done on cattle you suspect died from red water disease to find out if your other cattle are at high risk. Conditions that appear similar to red water disease include blackleg, Leptospirosis, Anaplasmosis, anthrax and poisoning from copper and bracken fern.

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