The Dreaded Pox

D. E. Larsen, DVM

“Gary, let me look at that sore again,” Mom said to my brother as he was getting ready for school one Spring morning.

Gary had a blister-like sore that had developed on the back of his hand. After a couple of days, it had scabbed over and was not bothering him much. 

“I don’t know how you can stand it,” I said to Gary as Mom was looking at the sore. “I would pick that scab.”

“This looks just like this sore that has popped up between my fingers,” Mom said.

Gary was 4 years older than me. He and Mom did most of the morning milking when Dad was working, as I had not started school yet. We milked a small herd of cows, but it was enough to pay most of the bills in the early 1950s.

“I think this is a cowpox sore,” Mom said. “Grandpa said he had seen these before.”

Cowpox is a viral disease of cattle caused by a virus that closely resembles the smallpox virus. In 1796, Edward Jenner noticed that milkmaids who had contracted cowpox never had smallpox lesions. After some experimentation, he published his findings in 1801. Cowpox virus was used to vaccinate people against smallpox for many years in the 1800s. The vaccine was changed to another virus sometime in the 1800s, but that date is not known.

“I will call Dr. Whitaker and have him look at the cows,” Mom said.

The next morning the cows were left in their stanchions after milking. Mom and I waited at the barn for Dr. Whitaker to arrive. I was excited because our farm’s rare visits by veterinarians were always filled with mystic and intrigue. 

Doctor Whitaker was a tall, thin, young veterinarian who had just moved to Myrtle Point. He moved from cow to cow until he found a sore on the teat of the 4th cow. 

“Yes, this looks like cowpox to me,” Dr. Whitaker said to Mom. “I will go ahead and vaccinate the entire herd.”

“David can stay and watch, and he can show you where everything is located if you need anything. I have chores to do at the house. You can stop there when you are done,” Mom said as she left the barn.

“Will David, let me show you how we vaccinate cows for cowpox,” Dr. Whitaker said as if he was conducting a lecture.

Dr. Whitaker returned to the cow with a large scab on one teat. He carefully picked the scab off the teat and placed it into a small tin container that looked like a lid off a jar. Then he added a little sand to the container and some water. 

With a knife, he cut the scab into tiny pieces. Then he placed it all in a mortar and pestle and ground it into a fine suspension.

“There, that should be good enough,” he said as he showed me the finished product. “Now we just have to scratch some of this into each cow. We will do this on the edge of their tail. That way, the sore that develops won’t be a problem for them.”

We moved from cow to cow, working down the milking string. Dr. Whitaker treated each cow the same. Lifting the tail, he would grab the web of skin on the side of the tail. Then he would scratch the skin with a knife blade until it bled. He had a small stiff brush in the solution he had made from the scab. He dipped the little brush and then rubbed it into the bleeding scratch he had made on the tail.

Each cow took a few minutes to complete the process. It must have taken close to an hour to finish the entire herd. 

“Do you guys have any heifers that are going to calve soon that are not in this bunch,” Dr. Whitaker asked?

“No,” I said with confidence. Although, I doubt if I had any real awareness of that status.

“Okay then, let’s clean up, and I can get out of here,” Dr. Whitaker said.

“I better turn the cows out first.”

“No, you come with me to the milk house, and we will wash up first,” Dr. Whitaker said. “Then you can turn the cows out.”

“But I didn’t touch anything.”

“It is better to be safe than sorry,” Dr. Whitaker said.

Dr. Whitaker washed my hands like they had not been washed before. I would have complained had it been Mom doing the washing, but I sensed that it was time to show how tuff I was.

“Okay, you can go turn those cows out. They will be ready to get out to the pastures.”

I opened the large door on the side of the barn. All the stanchions were connected with a set of boards along the top of the stanchion. I pulled the wooden pin that was holding them closed and pulled hard on the first stanchion. That pull, plus all the cows pulling back with their heads, and the stanchions came open. The cows backed out, and with some degree of order, turned and headed out the open door. 

Just as Dr. Whitaker had said. As soon as they were clear of the barn door, they would buck and kick their legs as they ran toward the pasture.

“This barn is a big mess. Those extra couple of hours with the cows in here makes it a big job to clean,” Dr. Whitaker. “I suppose your mother does that job.”

“I do some of it,” I said. “I can scrape and sweep the floor into the gutter. When the gutter is this full, I have difficulty pushing it out to the manure pile. When my brothers get home from school, we will clean it then. My sister never has to work at the barn.”

“I hear that a lot,” Dr. Whitaker said as he put everything back into his truck. “Sisters seem to get out of a lot of barn work. But most of the time, they do plenty of work around the house.”

Dr. Whitaker stopped and talked with Mom.  

“You should notice a scab on the right side of their tail,” he said. “And you shouldn’t have any more problems. You might want to have a doctor look at your sores if they get worse. Most of the time, they are no problem, but once in a while, they make people sick.”

“Thanks for coming so soon,” Mom said.

“Thanks for the call, and thanks for the help David,” Dr. Whitaker said as he departed.

Photo by Michael Gane from Pexels

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

7 thoughts on “The Dreaded Pox

  1. I remember learning about cowpox in school, and how it conferred immunity to smallpox. You had some great learning experiences growing up on that farm, and a good mentor in Dr. Whitaker. You would have already had a good set of skills in place before vet school.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. And so, I find you and I share yet another common trail: we were each influenced by an older veterinarian who enjoyed teaching. In my experience, large animal vets generally love showing their clients how to care for their stock. Not so much with cat/dog/human doctors. Thanks again for your approach and your help.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Most, but not all. The old vet I worked for in Enumclaw was very secretive, to the point of deception. He felt he would go broke if he taught farmers how to do things. He would use a lot of Combiotic, a Penicillin/ Streptomycin combination in common use in those days. But he removed the labels and placed his own script label. The he added a cc of Neopronisel, an archaic sulfa drug that was very red. His clients swore by Jack’s pink medicine. And, of course, the only place to get it was from him.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I remember Dr. Whitaker from my childhood and his office at the foot of Spruce Street near the bridge. About that time there was a tale about how a skunk’s scent sack had been dropped after it was surgically removed and how the office reeked after that. I always wondered if that was true.
    I was in 4-H Horse Club in my childhood and remember how good Dr. Whitaker was with my horses. I was always so interested in everything he did with my horses and watched with great fascination.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Descenting skunks was declared unethical in the early 1970’s so that was something I never had to do. The old vets all talked about doing that surgery outside.

      Liked by 1 person

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