Zoonotic Disease around the Dairy Farm

Calves can spread zoonotic diseases

All farms will have a health and safety plan in place which should cover off things including major on-farm hazards. One aspect of health and safety which can be overlooked, but can have an enormous impact on human health and wellbeing, is a zoonotic disease.

A zoonotic disease is one that can be spread from animals to humans. In general, many of these diseases are overlooked but, in certain circumstances, they can create severe illness and resultant permanent irreversible damage to organs.

Farm staff and contractors are exposed to all sorts of animal diseases on a regular basis. Some of the worst to affect humans, such as leptospirosis, may have minimal to no clinical signs in animals.  The following is a list (but not exhaustive) of the most common diseases that can affect humans:

  • Leptospirosis
  • Salmonella
  • Cryptosporidium
  • Rotavirus
  • Campylobacter
  • Ringworm.

How to stop zoonotic diseases from spreading

Many of these diseases are picked up due to inadequate hygiene and personal care. Some ways we can minimise the potential for infection are by protecting animals against getting the diseases in the first place. This can be done with vaccinations. Diseases that can be combated with highly effective vaccines include leptospirosis, salmonella (Salvexin®-B) and rotavirus. The use of vaccines allows animals to have a better immunity to specific diseases, and it can reduce the chance of infection and/or the severity of disease if an animal were to catch one.

The use of vaccines can also increase the immunity component of colostrum, which, when fed to calves, can assist in both preventing disease and/or reducing its severity. Many zoonotic diseases are transmitted by ingestion; however, some only require a small drop of urine to have contact with a mucous membrane like your eyes, mouth, nose, or skin cut.

Maintaining good hygiene practices

The other key feature to minimise infection with disease is to ensure all staff and other people on farm obey good hygiene when dealing with any animal. Some of the diseases above show minimal clinical signs in the animal, so all stock should be treated as potentially infected. Ensuring staff:

  • Do not eat or drink when handling animals
  • Wash and dry hands before eating, drinking, smoking, or vaping.

A number of zoonotic diseases are spread by calves. Ensuring they receive 3-4L of good quality colostrum as soon as possible after birth will give them the best chance to fight off any possible infections.

Please be mindful of having children or immunocompromised adults in and around the calf pens. Although it is tempting to have children with you in calf pens when feeding calves, both these groups of youngsters are at a higher risk of infection due to immune systems which have not yet fully developed and are unable to cope with large challenges.

Wearing gloves when you are working with animals is another good idea, as these can be easily removed and replaced if you are needing to have a bite.

Keeping zoonotic disease at bay with vaccinations

Vaccination is the best policy to try and minimise zoonotic disease in farm animals. Not all diseases have available vaccines, so ensuring hygiene is of a high standard is extremely important. Again, make sure staff wash and dry hands prior to eating, drinking, smoking, or vaping. If you are covered in animal excrement or urine, please wash off immediately and/or rinse out your eyes and mouth. Use of personal protective gear such as gloves, aprons or wet weather will help to protect individuals and make cleaning up easier. If you feel you need more information on protecting yourself from zoonotic diseases on-farm, please contact your Vetlife veterinarian to further discuss this topic.

Written by Susan Geddes – Vetlife Oxford.