Double Disease Trouble

By Jennifer Ryan
July, 2015

Some important diseases are concerns for more than just cattle

Diseases can be a threat to more than just an operation’s productivity and profitability. Some can even threaten the livestock, producers and veterinarians who care for the infected animals. That is such a concern that a concept, called One Health Initiative, was created as a worldwide strategy for expanding interdisciplinary collaborations and communications in all aspects of health care for humans, animals and the environment. 


Some of most concern include:


In 2013, there were 86 cases of rabies in cattle across the country. Grazing cattle or horses continuously often creates the opportunity to interact with wildlife – such as raccoons, skunks or bats – which can sometimes be infected with the disease. For livestock, rabies infection is almost certainly fatal after a clinical course of one to eight days.

The disease can take two forms: the passive or “dumb” form where the animal is lethargic; or the “furious” form where the infected animal becomes hyper excitable or fearful. Cattle almost always exhibit the passive form which eventually results in some form of paralysis as the disease progresses. When the producer or veterinarian examines the animal, that’s the highest chance of becoming infected themselves, says Andy Bennett, DVM, on the Veterinary Professional Services Team at Merial, Inc.

“That could look like any sort of downed animal,” he says. “That’s why you always want to approach with caution. There’s risk of exposure during (oral cavity) examination and sample collection as the virus may be present in the animals’ saliva or other tissue fluids.

A rabies vaccination for livestock is available to help prevent infection. However, only a small number of producers use it. Vaccination would be most valuable on dairies and seedstock operations where there is more frequent human to animal contact.

“Rabies is certainly one of the diseases that is rare but very serious for humans,” Bennett says. “Without post-exposure vaccines, people cannot survive after infection. Even then, it takes lots of injections and repeat visits to the doctor’s office. The rabies vaccine for livestock isn’t expensive, and it buys some peace of mind. No one wants to be a human that’s in contact with one of those 86 animals infected with rabies. For only a few dollars a head, you can prevent that risk.”

While not a common disease in cattle, the seriousness of the disease should warrant additional precautions by veterinarians and livestock producers, says Elisabeth J. Giedt, DVM, director of continuing education, extension and community engagement at Oklahoma State University Center for Veterinary Health Sciences.

“When you see an animal having trouble eating or drinking or exhibiting unusual behavior, you should practice an extra level of protection, especially if you’ve seen wild animals around,” Giedt says.

Giedt also encourages vaccinating 4-H or FFA livestock for rabies given the amount of human contact – especially with young people – the animals receive.

“Grazing animals may not be handled that much and don’t often warrant the cost,” she says. “The 4-H or FFA steer that is going to be around for a while and going to have a young person handling them, then rabies would be a vaccination to keep on your radar.”



Bovine brucellosis – or “Bang’s disease” – is caused by the bacterium Brucella abortus and can cause abortions in cattle. The disease can affect bison, buffalo and elk or even be transmitted to humans where it can affect multiple organs.

“Brucellosis has been a problem in the past,” Bennett says. “With vaccination of the cow, you can prevent brucellosis from being transmitted. For veterinarians and livestock producers, the main route of exposure is from handling aborted or full-term pregnancies that are infected.”

In cattle, brucellosis causes abortion and stillbirths two weeks to five months after infection. Some calves may be born alive but weak. Brucellosis eradication has been effective in the United States, but the disease can still be found in wildlife hosts, particularly in regions near Yellowstone National Park. The disease is transmitted by contact with fetal membranes, uterine fluids or milk from infected animals.

“While the disease has been removed from a large part of the United States, it’s still present in the greater Yellowstone area where there is interaction with free-range bison and elk,” Bennett says.

Brucella suis, which affects swine, is becoming an increasing threat due to the large populations of feral hogs.

“I’ve had cattle test positive for brucellosis suis exposure just from being in close quarters with infected pigs,” he notes.


Other diseases

In addition to rabies and brucellosis, there are numerous diseases that can be transferred from cattle to humans. For instance, E. Coli, listeriosis, salmonellosis or rotavirus can cause a variety of symptoms depending on the system affected and should be of concern for cattlemen and their workers and families, Giedt says.

“While several of these diseases are rare, their potential for devastating outcomes makes it advisable to take precautions seriously,” she says. “After you handle animals, be sure to wash your hands,” Giedt recommends. “It seems like good sense. When you come in after cleaning the barn, wash up before you grab that apple.”


Key points


• Brucellosis can affect sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, horses, dogs, rats and wild animals including deer, bison, elk, moose, camels, water buffalo and marine mammals. 1

• Infection in people causes flu-like signs (fever, night sweats, headaches, back pain). Arthritis (joint pain) and re-occurring fevers may occur with long term infection. Rarely, cases of brucellosis can involve the nervous system, eyes, or heart.1

Brucellosis. The Center for Food Security and Public Health. Iowa State University. April 2008.



Keep Clear! Remove habitats for wildlife around livestock

Encourage producers to keep their livestock barns and pastures clear from habitats that might attract skunks, raccoons and other known carriers of rabies.

• Feeding areas should be kept clean so that extra feed or garbage does not attract wildlife.

• Derelict barns, farm equipment, lumber piles and debris should be removed from the property so that wildlife does not use it as shelter.

Courtesy of Oklahoma Department of Agriculture.

Topics: Diagnostics, Product


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