It's been decades since foot-and-mouth has been found in North America, and government officials want to keep it that way.
“The last outbreak of foot-and-mouth in the United States was in 1929 in Texas. The disease was eradicated in Mexico in 1954,” said Dianne Hellwig, a veterinarian for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.
Hellwig said North American officials fear that foot-and-mouth could reach our shores from Europe, primarily Great Britain, Scotland and France, where the disease is devastating the livestock industry. The disease has also been reported in countries in Africa, South America and Asia.
“No animals or animal products are being allowed into the United States from countries where foot-and-mouth disease has been reported. People coming back from those countries are also being examined. Their luggage is being checked for meat products. Travelers are being warned not to go on farms in these countries,” she said The fear is justified, according to Tom Troxel, a beef cattle specialist for the UA Cooperative Extension Service. “Foot-and-mouth disease is a highly infectious viral infection. It attacks beef and dairy cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, buffalo and hoofed animals with an even number of toes such as deer and antelope. It's doesn't appear to affect horses.
“Infected animals are usually slaughtered and the carcasses burned to prevent any chance of further contamination.”
Foot-and-mouth disease doesn't kill the animals, but it leaves them severely debilitated. Hellwig said, “The economic loss comes from a drastic loss of production. There's a lack of gain and lack of milk production. Females may lose their offspring, or they may fail to reproduce.”
The virus cannot be spread to humans, although humans can play a large part in spreading the disease to livestock.
Hellwig notes that one way foot-and-mouth disease was eradicated in the United States was by making it illegal to feed raw garbage to hogs. “In England, officials believe the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease may have been caused by uncooked airline food being fed to hogs.”
While no one is certain airline food was the culprit, it's no mystery how foot-and-mouth disease is spread from farm to farm. Hellwig said, “The virus can be spread on vehicle tires and on the clothing of people. It can be spread by birds, rodents and cats and dogs. And it can be spread when infected animals are moved.
“In England, they're limiting the movement of livestock. They've suspended sales, and they're not allowing livestock expositions at fairs.
“Because of the way foot-and-mouth disease can be spread, it can destroy a livestock industry in a matter of weeks.”
Hellwig said foot-and-mouth disease should not be confused with BSE, or mad-cow disease. “They're not the same. They just happen to be occurring at the same time in Europe.”
The symptoms of foot-and-mouth disease include fever and vesicles, or fluid-filled pockets, in the mouth and on the feet of the infected animal. Clinical signs such as high fever, low milk production, poor appetite and depression appear one to seven days after infection. Young animals can die from the disease.
Hellwig notes that there are diseases with similar signs that do exist in the United States, including vesicular stomatitis virus and bluetongue virus. Producers who see the signs should immediately contact their veterinarians.
The United States, Canada and Mexico have been free of foot-and-mouth disease for decades, but it's always better to be safe than sorry. For more information about foot-and-mouth disease, contact your county office of the Cooperative Extension Service.
C. Richard Maples is an Extension Communications Specialist with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture.