Spreading ... N. caninum causes cattle to abort their first two or three calves. Photo: Steve Hynes
A PARASITE believed to be costing the cattle industry $30 million a year is now endemic in Australia and could be infecting native wildlife.
New research from the University of Sydney has found that Neospora caninum, which causes spontaneous abortions in infected cattle, has spread from the eastern coastal region to the rest of the country, placing more of Australia's cattle market at risk than previously realised.
The parasite is carried by domestic dogs, which infect pastures. The new findings show that wild dogs and semi-domesticated dogs in remote Aboriginal communities also carry the antibodies for the parasite. This has led researchers to conclude that it is now a nationwide problem.
The lead author of the study conducted by the university's faculty of veterinary science, Jan Slapeta, said the research raised crucial questions about whether other domestic and native animals could be infected by the now ubiquitous parasite.
Laboratory experiments had already established that N. caninum was fatal to the fat-tailed dunnart, a tiny marsupial from the same family as quolls and Tasmanian devils, Dr Slapeta said.
"This is a very clever parasite and it's creeping inland, opening up a totally new gate to the problem," he said. "It's outsmarting us, the way it hides for up two years then strikes."
The parasite causes cattle to abort their first two or three calves. In dogs, it damages the nervous system.
Anthony Bennett, a vet in Berry who treats cattle from Gerringong to Nowra, said although cases of the parasite infection in his region were at a low level, they were regular.
"We see it all the time," he said. "It's not a major problem yet but it is a problem, to the point that we recommend [infected] cows are culled from the herd."
Bill Bolin, who runs a 500-hectare property at Eden Creek, in the state's north, , estimates the parasite cost him about $25,000 when it hit his beef herd a few years back.
"You always have a few cows aborting but suddenly we were getting large numbers," he said.