Authorities are warning that the anthrax danger is higher after two bison northwest of North Battleford, Sask. recently died after contracting the highly contagious disease.
“Whenever we have drier summers, anthrax is always a higher risk,” said Dr. Kent Weir, associate veterinarian with Weir Veterinary services in Lloydminster.
Anthrax spores can survive for decades in wet areas such as sloughs and potholes, especially in alkaline soils. When bodies of water dry up, spores are exposed and animals can ingest them with their corpses leaving more spores on the ground and heightening the danger. Since the disease can kill cattle in as little as two hours, sudden death is the most common symptom.
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“The thing a producer needs to be most wary of is something that is unexplainably dead,” said Weir. “When you find them, the animals are often extremely bloated — more bloated than you would expect for the amount of time that they have been dead.
“It’s literally like you check the cows the night before and you show up the next morning and you have a dead cow.”
Animals that have died from anthrax will often have blood coming out of an orifice.
Humans are susceptible to anthrax and can contract it if they cut into animals that have died of anthrax, and inhale some of the spores. They could also become infected if they have a cut or skin abrasion that comes into contact with the spores.
Humans who catch anthrax will have flu-like symptoms, nausea, high fever and have trouble breathing. They may also cough up blood, and in rare occasions, can die.
“The risk to humans is quite low and it’s not something that you need to worry about unless you’re cutting into them,” said Weir.
A producer who suspects a case of anthrax should call their veterinarian immediately and cover the body with a tarp to prevent scavenging and spread of disease. The vet will come out and take blood samples. (Blood doesn’t clot in an animal that has died of anthrax.)
Anthrax is a federally reportable disease, and all cases will be reported to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
If anthrax is suspected, producers should move their live animals off that pasture to avoid contamination.
“The disease doesn’t transfer from animal to animal,” said Weir. “If one cow inhales it and then walks over to another cow and breathes on it, it doesn’t get transferred that way. It’s from ingesting it.”
After the veterinarian has taken samples from the dead animal, producers should burn the carcass and bury the remains to ensure they are killing the anthrax spore.
Producers who have had more than one anthrax death may want to invest in the anthrax vaccine. Although not expensive, the vaccine must be specially ordered as it’s not commonly used.