Flooding along the Missouri and other rivers through the central United States is prompting a call for cattle and other livestock producers to watch for signs of the deadly anthrax bacteria once floodwaters recede.
"Cattle producers in areas along the Missouri River should watch for unexplained cattle deaths which might occur as a result of anthrax spores washing down and being consumed by cattle after the floodwaters recede," said K-State Research and Extension veterinarian Larry Hollis. Veterinarians and animal health officials in North Dakota, Minnesota and Canada have issued similar warnings.
"Because the Missouri River is carrying water from the Dakotas where they historically have anthrax just about every summer, anthrax spores may be carried down and end up on flooded Kansas backwater pastures," Hollis said. "Any unexplained cattle deaths should be reported immediately to a veterinarian. The veterinarian may choose to necropsy the carcass to make sure that anthrax is not the cause. Spores of other spore-forming organisms, such as the Clostridial specie that causes blackleg, also can be carried to new areas by floodwaters."
Anthrax, which can affect all mammals, is caused by a spore-forming bacterium called Bacillus anthracis. Animals typically acquire the disease by grazing in areas contaminated by spores.
Cattle, bison, sheep, goats and horses are particularly susceptible. Anthrax spores are hardy and occur naturally in the soil, where they can survive for decades.
Humans can contract anthrax, but it is unusual to find a human case of anthrax linked to an animal outbreak if proper precautions are taken during the handling of affected carcasses, Hollis said.
That's why it is important for livestock owners to be vigilant in watching for the disease, especially in animals grazing in previously-flooded areas.
Death from anthrax can occur in a matter of hours from the time the first symptoms occur, so a seemingly healthy animal may die before anyone notices clinical signs, he said. Animals that are discovered before dying may appear distressed and have difficulty breathing. Hemorrhaging from the mouth, nose and anus is common. Pigs and carnivores are more resistant to the disease, although they may develop swelling in the neck and throat or have gastrointestinal disturbances. Carcasses of animals that die of anthrax decompose rapidly, and rigor mortis is often incomplete or absent.
If a livestock owner suspects anthrax in a live animal, or in the case of a sudden death of unknown cause in previously-flooded areas, he or she should not touch or move the animal. A veterinarian should be called in to investigate the death and determine the proper samples to test for anthrax along with the proper carcass disposal method.
More information about anthrax is available on Kansas State University's National Animal Biosecurity Center website. A fact sheet for cattle producers is available from the Minnesota Board of Animal Health.
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Dr. Larry Hollis
K-State Research and Extension is a short name for the Kansas State University Agricultural Experiment Station and Cooperative Extension Service, a program designed to generate and distribute useful knowledge for the well-being of Kansans. Supported by county, state, federal and private funds, the program has county Extension offices, experiment fields, area Extension offices and regional research centers statewide. Its headquarters is on the K-State campus, Manhattan.