How to spot foot-and-mouth disease early

Livestock farmers should constantly be on the lookout for any potential outbreaks of FMD. An expert guides farmers on how to spot, contain and treat this infectious disease early

Foot and Mouth Disease affects cloven hoofed animals like pigs, cows, and goats. Photo: Supplied/Food for Mzansi

Earlier this year, livestock farmers residing in certain parts of KwaZulu-Natal were shocked to find themselves under a five-year ban that prevents them from moving their cloven-hoofed animals. The KZN department of agriculture and rural development implemented the ban to try and curb the spread of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) in the regions.

Dr Didi Claasen, technical and marketing support executive at Afrivet, advises farmers to always keep an eye out for FMD.

She says FMD, a virus-specific to cloven-hoofed animals, has a very short incubation period. This means that the animals start showing symptoms within days of being exposed to the virus, and that the virus spreads rapidly.

“So, one day there will be a few animals [affected], and then a few days later, almost your entire herd can be affected. And it leads to production losses. The animals can’t walk, and they don’t eat as well.”

Look out for these foot-and-mouth disease symptoms. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

What are the symptoms of FMD?

FMD manifests in the mouth and on the feet of your cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats. Claasen says that the animals develop lesions in these areas that can be quite severe or subtle.

“What we usually look for is an increase in saliva production, so you’ll see saliva dribbling from the cattle mouth quite substantially. It’s not the only disease that has an increased amount of saliva as a symptom, but it’s highly suspected to be foot-and-mouth disease if you have these mouth lesions with increased saliva production and then foot lesions as well.”

The virus is spread through contact with the bodily excretions of infected animals or the animals themselves. The characteristic lesions are also often accompanied by lip-smacking, teeth grinding, nasal discharge, and fever.

There are no specific treatments for the virus, but animals can recover from it. Claasen says that the disease does not last very long. “The main thing is to prevent secondary bacterial infections because you have these blisters in the mouth and between the toes that rupture, and then bacteria can cause lesions because they can penetrate the skin.”

Claasen explains that the animals are in pain, and they really struggle to walk. “They can’t walk far for food or graze, so it’s important that you bring food to them, and water as well. They also struggle to eat, so if you can, give them softer food. That will also go a long way just to make sure that they get nourishment in that period when they can’t eat as well and when they can’t walk.”

Minimise the risk of your animals getting FMD

Proper biosecurity is extremely important for limiting FMD. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

The biggest thing farmers can do to minimise the FMD risk to their animals, says Claasen, is to practice thorough biosecurity.

“You [need to] know where the animals are coming from, where they were before they came onto your farm, and what animals they mingled with. Also, [you must ensure that] the vehicles that come onto the farm are clean and disinfected so that you don’t spread the virus. You must also know who the people are that come onto your farm and what they bring with them.”

When buying animals from an auction, the ideal biosecurity measure is to quarantine those animals for 30 days, as they were co-mingled at the auction, Claasen says.

“If they remain symptom-free, they can come onto your farm. Obviously, don’t buy animals from an area that has foot-and-mouth disease, or where there’s been a recent outbreak, or there are suspected outbreaks. Don’t move animals when you’re in that area, as you risk bringing the disease onto your farm.”

What should you do if you suspect that your animals are infected?

Claasen explains that it is imperative to contact the state veterinary services if you suspect that an animal has the disease on your farm.

“There are several diseases that can mimic foot-and-mouth disease, or that can look like foot-and-mouth disease, but aren’t. It’s [thus] important that an accurate diagnosis is made and that the community is made aware of the fact that it is in fact foot-and-mouth disease as soon as possible to combat the spread. The disease will die out soon enough if we treat it with the urgency that it requires. So, contact the state or state veterinary services immediately.”

Claasen has the following disease-control advice for livestock farmers:

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