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Animal cures of old P2: Burnt engine oil, tea, treacle, bluestone & baking soda

In this article, University College Dublin veterinary medicine graduate, Austin Donnelly, MVB, tells That’s Farming’s readers about animal cures of old in the second of a four-part mini-series.

In the last article, I looked at some of the older herbal and magico-religious cures for animal ails.

Here I share some more, including the work of charmers, some of the surgeries of old and the use of homemade cures.

Charmers used elements of magic, superstition and sometimes religion to effect a cure.


If an animal was suffering a bleed, for example, after dehorning, a farmer would call upon a person with a charm for bleeding to assist.

Depending on the person with the charm, some could work at distance and be contacted by telephone or telegram with a description of the animal, the breed, the colour and location.

In Co. Tyrone, it is reported that many times a vet was called too and could arrive to find the bleeding had already been stopped.

In Co. Donegal, there was a condition found in lambs grazing the summer meadows in which their ears would crumple and redden in the sunlight.

Their sore ears would eventually swell and shrink like a cat’s, and so this condition was termed – the disease of the cat.

This problem was seen when the lambs were grazing in the summer meadows and had eaten the yellow flowers of St John’s Wart: this would make their skin sensitive to the sun.

Treatment, back then, involved making small incisions along the swollen ears to help reduce the swelling.

This was in the days before farmers discovered keeping the affected animals out of the sun was even more effective!

Feeding of a live eel & sticking a pin in ground

Some of the early interventions were quite frankly bizarre.

One, in particular, was the feeding of a live eel to a beast with a suspected intestinal obstruction in the hope that the squirming and wriggling creature would relieve the blockage.

The blood of eels was also used to treat warts in animals and in humans, and as part of that ritual, the eel’s head was buried afterwards.

There was a cure reportedly used in the west to rid an animal of red water.

This involved sticking a pin in the ground as near as possible to the place where the red water was passed by the first person that noticed the animal unwell. This person was not to tell others of this.


There were many household remedies used around Ireland also.

When it comes to a beast suffering a bleed from a horn, where there was no vet or charm, it was common practice for a farmer to gather a handful of cobwebs from the rooves of farm buildings and apply these over the horn to help stop the bleed.

Tea, treacle and bread soda

Strong, cooled black tea had a range of purposes as this was fed to calves with diarrhoea and was also considered a remedy for red water.

Other treatments for red water included giving the cattle drenches with treacle or the feeding of a bucket of milk in which a red-hot poker had been placed and allowed to cool.

A calf suffering from an upset stomach was given bread soda, and similarly, weaker calves were fed tonics of brown sugar and eggs.


Adult cattle and horses suffering from gripe or colic were offered forge water to drink.

Mixtures of blue stone and tar were wrapped as a poultice and applied to cases of foot rot. Linseed oil was fed to cure coughing in calves.

Wood ash and wood oil were once used to kill lice on the coats of cattle. Meanwhile, burnt engine oil was applied to animals to treat ringworm or itchy mange mite infestations.

Thanks to the arrival of penicillin antibiotics, vaccinations and parasiticidal drugs from the 1960s onwards, many of these old treatments were no longer needed and have been consigned to history.

‘Quy’ calf

A gentleman in Co Antrim wrote to me about a very unique term he had heard for a female calf.

He suspected this term would not be heard on the farms 10 miles from his farm. The term was ‘Quy’ as in, ‘Did the cow have a bull or Quy calf?’.

I have since found fellow vets on the Inishowen peninsula of Donegal who hear this term regularly!

This comes from the Scots, and it can also be spelt Quay or Qey. Thank you very much for sharing.

Now, as for your term ‘Laired’ for a tractor bogged down in a wet field….. I think this might be truly unique to Co Antrim!

Thanks to all the farmers and vets who contributed to this article. Please always consult your vet for animal treatment.

Note for readers:

This article should not be used as a substitute for the advice of a medical professional and is for informational purposes only. No material is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Donnelly’s book

For some veterinary tales, read about Donnelly’s adventures as a vet in his book, Whiskers Feather and Fur – Veterinary Tales.

You can purchase the book via this link – available in audio, Kindle and paperback.

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