Adding value to cattle hides through improved control strategies that reduce damage from Demodex (follicular mange mite) infestations

A project undertaken at the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences, University of Melbourne, and supervised by John Larsen


The aims of this project are to:

  1. Quantify the implications of damage caused by Demodex mange mites of cattle within the leather industry.
  2. Identify high and low prevalence herds and attempt management changes and/or chemical treatment to reduce the incidence of hide damage.
  3. Develop a method to identify infested hides or animals before the leather processing begins.

Background

Like many animal species, cattle can carry mange mites. These small parasites live in hair follicles and are specific to each host species – the cattle mite is called Demodex bovis. In cattle, these infestations often go unnoticed and don’t cause much of a problem. However, significant losses can occur when the hides of infested cattle hides are used to produce high quality leather goods.
The mange mites can block the hair follicle and cause tiny ‘pimples’. These can become small pin holes in the processed hide, which tear when stretched. The number of pin holes varies, but severely affected hides are unusable. Leather affected by Demodex mite damage is weaker, more difficult to colour and less pleasing to the eye. As a consequence, hides damaged by this parasite fetch lower prices than those without them.
Unfortunately due to the nature of the damage, it is not possible to detect the parasites in either the living animal, or the freshly collected hide. The pin holes are commonly detected at the ‘wet-blue’ stage, which is almost half way through the production cycle. Considerable time and expense has been invested to get hides to this stage and those with severe damage may be all but thrown away.
This is not a new discovery. The parasite has been recorded in cattle hides since the early 1900’s. To date, most work done on this parasite has been conducted on small numbers of animals, or as an add-on to a separate study. No clear evidence regarding detection, treatment, mode of transmission or the financial implications of this parasite has recently been presented, either in Australia or overseas. In 2010 the Mackinnon Project was approached by a local leather manufacturer to help investigate this issue. This company reported losses of up to $25,000 per week due to downgrading of hides - not something a small- to medium-size business can sustain.
The Australian leather industry is not able to compete with lower cost countries like China for the bulk supply of leather. Therefore, our industry supplies mainly high quality leather products to world markets. To keep our competitive edge, the quality of Australian leather must be superior to other suppliers. When damaged hides are processed, the manufacturer has two options – to on-sell them or accept the financial losses. However, regular and significant financial losses from downgraded leather are not sustainable. In addition, compromising the quality of exported goods may cause buyers to look elsewhere for product, and so leather damage from cattle mange mite is a significant problem.