Foot and Mouth Disease: What You Need to Know

Foot and Mouth Disease Symptoms Include Fever and Painful Blisters

Foot and Mouth Disease: What You Need to Know

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By John Hibma, Connecticut – Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) is a highly contagious, viral disease that infects cloven-hoofed animals. All ruminants, including cows, meat and dairy goats, sheep, and deer as well as swine are susceptible to Foot and Mouth Disease. The disease is characterized by a fever along with painful blisters on the lips, in the mouth and on the feet and mammary gland. Foot and Mouth Disease is generally not fatal to animals and most animals recover in a week or two. However, due to the painful nature of the disease, animals have trouble eating and walking, which adversely affects their productivity. Foot and Mouth Disease is not transmitted to humans; however, humans can spread the disease from animal to animal.

The last reported instances of FMD in the United States date back to 1929 in California. However, it continues to be a significant problem in many countries around the world. An outbreak in England in 2001 resulted in the slaughter of more than 4 million animals. In the United States, the USDA has maintained a strictly enforced program that monitors for FMD, which has been effective in preventing an FMD outbreak for almost 90 years.

Because FMD is so contagious and inflicts such high economic losses, the most effective way to control an outbreak is through immediate slaughtering of all animals showing clinical signs of the disease as well as those that may have been exposed and the quarantining of facilities while the virus is eradicated. There is a nearly 100% chance that animals exposed to the disease will develop clinical symptoms within several days. The virus lives in and is transmitted through body fluids and organic matter. FMD can be transmitted via water vapor coming from the breath of one animal to another as well as sexual contact. The virus is transmitted via soiled clothing and dirty footwear and can remain viable for many hours when organic matter is available. Moving animals in an infected facility from one pen to another is enough to spread the disease.

Foot and Mouth Disease spreads quickly, infecting a barn full of animals within hours of initial contact with the virus.

How Foot and Mouth Disease Spreads
Animals are held for only short periods of time in contaminated facilities or moved in contaminated vehicles.
Animals are fed feedstuffs such as garbage, grains, commodity byproducts or forages that harbor the virus.
Animals drink contaminated water.
Animals are inseminated with semen from an infected animal.
Animals contact with people wearing contaminated clothing or shoes.

Common clinical signs of FMD are blisters (vesicles) in the mouth, on the tongue and lips, on the teats or between the toes as well as the excessive salivation or lameness resulting from the painful blisters. Temperatures rise quickly but usually diminish after 48 hours. Consumption of feed is reduced due to the pain of the blisters in the mouth. Milk production in cows will decline due to the reduction of feed intakes. FMD seldom kills older animals, however, production or growth may be slow to recover which makes the animal less marketable. Younger animals are more liable to die due to secondary problems caused by inadequate nutrition.

The only cure for the disease is for it to run its course. There are several different known strains of the virus, which makes developing effective vaccines problematic. Even though there are vaccines available, the vaccination of animals in any region is considered to be cost-ineffective due to the man-hours of labor, the number of animals and the availability of the vaccine. Due to the danger posed by this virus, the manufacturer of vaccines in the US has been prohibited. Livestock in the US have no immunity to FMD since the disease has not been here since 1929.

Authorities stress the critical need to prevent FMD from establishing itself rather than having to manage an outbreak. The potential for catastrophic economic losses caused by FMD cannot be overstated. It is essential for livestock owners and producers to maintain sound biosecurity practices to prevent introduction/spread of the virus.

Recommended Measures for Prevention
Controlling access of livestock to people and equipment.
Controlling the introduction of new animals into existing herds.
Maintain sanitation of livestock pens, buildings, vehicles, and equipment.
Monitor and report illness.
Appropriately disposal of manure and dead carcasses.

All owners of livestock are highly encouraged to regularly monitor the health of their animals and immediately report any suspicious signs to veterinarians. Foot and mouth disease symptoms can be confused with other less harmful diseases such as bovine viral diarrhea, foot rot in cattle and other ruminants, and vesicular stomatitis. It’s wise to confer with a veterinarian when any of these symptoms may be observed in a herd.

Even though the virus is highly virulent, it’s also easily destroyed with common disinfectants such as bleach or exposure to heat. Cleanliness and sanitation are the first line of defense in halting the spread of FMD. A human need not worry about contracting FMD — only cloven-hooved animals will get FMD. FMD is not related to the human ailment of Hand-Foot-and-Mouth-Disease, common to children.


Since the disease is still found extensively in surrounding countries, experts believe it’s only a matter of time before it may find its way back to the US. Due to the extensive movement of livestock throughout the US, an outbreak of FMD would spread rapidly if not identified and contained quickly. Deer and elk and other wild animals with cloven hooves are also susceptible to the disease and the establishment of FMD in those populations could delay the eradication of the virus. The danger also exists that FMD may be a tool used for bioterrorism, as well. The economic ramifications to animal agriculture and the overall US economy of FMD coming back to the US are unthinkable and potentially catastrophic.

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