Redwater Disease: Bacillary Hemoglobinuria

Crystal Riczu, , March 2013

Bacillary hemoglobinuria, also known as redwater disease, is an acute, infectious, toxic disease that primarily affects young cattle on pasture (but may also affect sheep).  It is caused by the bacteria Clostridium haemolyticum which is a soil borne bacterium that can survive a long time in contaminated soil or in bones of infected carcasses.  The bacteria spores are ingested and are naturally found in the rumen and liver of healthy cattle.  It is not until there is local liver damage and necrosis (usually caused by a migrating liver fluke infection or much less commonly due to a high nitrate diet) that the bacteria spores germinate into vegetative cells that multiply and produce toxins that destroy the red blood cells in the body.

Post-mortem findings of jaundice/icterus (yellowish tinge to the tissues) in a case of bacilliary hemoglobinuria.


Cattle may be suddenly found dead but usually have a sudden onset of fever, severe depression, abdominal pain and trouble breathing. The gums of the teeth (mucous membranes) and sclera (white portion) of the eye may look pale (anemic) or yellow color (jaundice/icteric) with pinpoint red blood spots (petechia).  They may also have dark purple/red “port wine” colored urine (hemoglobinuria).  The duration of clinical signs can vary from no signs (the cow acting as an immune carrier of the disease) to 12 hours in a pregnant cow to 3-4 days in other cattle. The death rate in untreated animals can be as high as 95%.

Post-mortem liver section of a patient with bacillary hemoglobinuria showing a Zahn’s infarct– conical areas of liver cell damage, but with no necrosis (cell death).


Bacillary hemoglobinuria can be diagnosed by clinical signs and post mortem findings, but can be confirmed though lab tests by either isolating the bacteria from the liver (by culture, fluorescent antibody, or immunohistochemistry), or the toxin from in the liver or abdominal cavity fluid.

Proper diagnosis is important as there are other diseases that may present similarly including; anaplasmosis, anthrax, bracken fern poisoning, and leptospirosis.


Early treatment with penicillin or oxytetracycline is essential as the bacteria are restricted to areas of liver damage and the more liver damage there is, the less blood supply there will be to transport the antibiotics to where they are needed (reducing the effectiveness of treatment).   Depending on the severity of the disease, IV fluid therapy and/or blood transfusion may also be required.


The best way to prevent this disease is to vaccinate (a primer and booster vaccine) against Clostridium haemolyticum (usually found within the 7-way vaccine).  Other control methods include rotating pastures and controlling liver fluke infections.