As worries about COVID-19 (coronavirus) continue to heighten, it is important to take preventative measures to protect yourself from getting sick. Viruses, bacteria, and other diseases can affect both humans and animals like livestock. Do our livestock like cattle, pigs, and chickens get sick too? If so, how do we treat and care for those sick animals?
First, it is important to know that it is not common for diseases to jump from one species to another…but it does happen. An infectious disease that spreads from animals to humans (or vice versa) is called a zoonotic disease. For a disease to spread from one species to another it usually has to mutate or change a little to adapt itself to the new host. That is one theory on how the current coronavirus became so prevalent – it is thought that the virus came from bats and then jumped to humans when they came in contact.
Plenty of other human diseases (some of them very bad) are known to have come from animals – anthrax, bird flu, BSE, Chagas disease, Hantavirus, swine flu, leprosy, Lyme disease, rabies, West Nile fever, and Zika fever, just to name a few. With any disease –human or animal – it is the same two-fold process. First, try to prevent getting the disease. Second, if you do get the disease, try to treat it with medicine and other care.
For humans, the CDC recommends some basic hygiene practices to help prevent getting the coronavirus or any other disease. Avoid contact with sick people. Clean your hands often by washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with 60%–95% alcohol. Stay home and seek medical advice and avoid traveling if you are sick.
Most of our livestock are herd animals. They like being together in close proximity with each other. This means they come in contact with each other regularly, sniffing, scratching, huddling, etc. This close proximity keeps them calm as they like interacting with each other. While farmers do a lot to keep barns, pens, and even pastures clean, there is still urine and feces that has to be dealt with (cows aren’t toilet trained). So the tactic is not to keep individual animals safe and disease-free. The tactic is to keep the entire herd or flock safe and disease free. Many farmers implement biosecurity measures to protect their animals. They don’t want diseases brought in from the outside. You might have to step your shoes into a disinfecting wash before you enter a barn. You might have to change into clean clothes before you enter a barn. You might have to wear a Tyvek-type-coverall suit over your clothes and shoes. You may even have to shower, change your clothes, and wear a protective suit – all before entering a barn with livestock.
Farmers can do a number of other things too, besides just wearing clean clothing. Reducing contact with wildlife is an important one. Migratory birds that fly over could defecate on a turkey farm and potentially spread any disease that they might be carrying. So turkeys and chickens are raised in barns and under roofs to prevent that risk. Farmers can also reduce exposure to insects like flies and mosquitoes that carry diseases. No dairy barn is complete without at least one sticky-tape-fly-trap or electric bug zapper. But farmers may also have to do things like spray insecticides to control insect populations – all in an effort to keep the animals disease free. Finally, whenever new animals are brought into a barn, the barn gets cleaned thoroughly with a disinfectant.
Farmers can also try to prevent diseases in their animals with vaccines. Vaccines use a dead or modified virus to stimulate the body’s natural defenses against infection without causing the illness itself. If after the immunization, the body is exposed to the specific virus in the future, it will recognize it and fight off the infection much more quickly and effectively.
If humans get sick, we do everything we can to treat ourselves and let our bodies fight the disease. This may mean going to the doctor, taking medications, quarantining ourselves, or just curling up with a good bowl of chicken noodle soup. (Please note: I’m not a doctor. Don’t take this as professional advice. Treat each disease individually and consult experts as appropriate. Chicken noodle soup alone will not cure you.)
For livestock, it is much the same as humans. If one animal gets sick, then farmers can remove that one animal from the rest of the herd to try and minimize the spread of the disease. Farmers check their livestock usually two or more times a day to monitor for disease and other items that may need attention. But because livestock are herd animals there is a good chance that if one gets sick they all may get sick.
There are a number of common diseases – some serious and some less so – that need to be treated in poultry, swine, cattle, and other livestock. The animals need to be cared for to help them get back to full health. Like humans might go see a doctor, farmers will call a veterinarian to consult and help treat their animals. The veterinarian might prescribe an antibiotic or other medicine to help the animal fight the disease. Antibiotics are medicines that inhibit the growth of or destroy microorganisms – specifically harmful strains of bacteria.
Livestock will exhibit many of the same symptoms as humans when they are sick. Diarrhea, constipation, fever, coughing, and sneezing are all relatively easy to spot and recognize. Livestock with these symptoms should be cared for as quickly as possible to prevent worsening of symptoms or the spread of disease.
Historically, humans and other animals like livestock have always lived in close proximity. In many historic buildings in Europe you might see that the barn was connected directly to the house. This allowed for ease of care as the farmer could easily access and monitor their animals. But it also allowed for easy transmission of diseases.
Living close to animals has allowed for countless benefits to humans. Livestock provide muscle power, meat, milk, eggs, wool and other hair fibers, skins for clothing and industrial products, feathers for pillows, and so much more. Living without animals is almost unimaginable. So we must be good stewards of those animals. When they get us sick (or we get them sick) we must take care of them to the best of our ability.
Our animal companions can also be the key to helping us get healthy. Throughout history, smallpox was responsible for thousands of deaths. When it was discovered in the early 1800s that milkmaids were often immune from smallpox, an English doctor named Edward Jenner started studying it. The milkmaids had been infected with cowpox – a mild form of the disease – from their direct contact with cows. This infection made them immune to the much worse smallpox virus. Jenner began infecting other humans with cowpox to protect them from smallpox. Thus the smallpox vaccine was invented. Today, smallpox has been eradicated globally.
While we don’t yet have a vaccine or cure for the human COVID-19 disease or many of the livestock diseases farmers deal with, we can practice two steps: prevent and treat. We won’t be able to eradicate all diseases. But with good advancements in human medicine and veterinary medicine, we can help keep our livestock healthy and minimize the chances of getting sick ourselves.
P.S. The Center for Food Security and Public Health offers a great, self-paced, course to learn more about zoonotic diseases. Check it out at http://www.cfsph.iastate.edu/YouthInAg/