The discovery of malignant catarrhal fever in cattle shouldn’t be a reason for panic but is a “wakeup call” for better animal identification, according to LSU AgCenter veterinarian Dr. Christine Navarre.

The National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, Iowa, recently reported that three cases of the wildebeest strain of the disease were confirmed in cattle originating from Texas.

“The cattle in Texas were exposed to captive wildebeests at the same ranch,” Navarre said, explaining that’s how they are believed to have contracted the disease — from the wildebeest carriers.

“Then the 134 animals subsequently were sold and later traced to ranches in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi,” she added. “One heifer exposed to the wildebeests that was shipped to Louisiana has since died of the disease.”

Navarre said the cases of malignant catarrhal fever are much less significant than other diseases, but she said they do serve as warnings about what needs to be done.

“Although the outbreak of malignant catarrhal fever in this country has only minor repercussions for the cattle industry in the United States, it should serve as a wakeup call for the need for a national animal identification system,” she said. “Had this been a very contagious disease, like foot-and-mouth disease, it would have spread across the United States.

“Without a fast, efficient animal tracking system, there would be no way to stop it,” she added.

The LSU AgCenter veterinarian said this incident also serves as a warning about the dangers of mingling domestic and exotic hooved animals.

“Producers should have very strict biosecurity plans in place to prevent spread of contagious diseases between groups of animals,” Navarre said. “This includes quarantining newly purchased cattle or cattle returning to the farm.

“This will prevent not only the spread of foreign animal diseases but some diseases already in the United States that can be transmitted between herds.”

Malignant catarrhal fever is caused by a herpes virus. There are two strains of the disease — a wildebeest strain and a sheep strain.

“Wildebeests and sheep are carriers of the virus and do not display signs of the disease,” Navarre explained. “But they can transmit the disease to cattle — in which it is highly fatal.

“The good news is that transfer of this disease from cattle to cattle is very rare, so continued spread is very unlikely. It also is not a threat to human health or the food supply.”

The sheep strain of malignant catarrhal fever occurs naturally in the United States, but the wildebeest strain is foreign to the United States.

“Because of the rare transmission of this disease from cattle to cattle, the impact on cattle health nationwide is extremely low,” Navarre said. “The negative impact would be on international trade, since this is a reportable disease to the World Organization for Animal Health.