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Keeping animal diseases away from humans

Animal Health: Veterinarians are part of the team of essential workers during COVID-19

Zoonosis risks can be reduced or prevented through common biosecurity strategies.

Every year the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) has a theme for Animal Health Week in October. This year’s theme was “Understanding Zoonosis” — diseases that humans can get from animals.

Not one animal-borne disease in recent memory has affected our lives more than COVID-19. There are lots of other diseases ranging from more minor ailments such as ringworm to those with major consequences such as toxoplasmosis or echinococcus (alveolar hydatid disease). Detailed descriptions can be found online, but both can be very serious.

Risks can be reduced or prevented through common biosecurity strategies — cleaning up, washing hands, avoiding oral ingestion, in some cases boot dips and changing clothes or using coveralls or lab coats — all go along way to preventing the disease spread. If biosecurity is neglected, people run the risk of contracting and spreading the organisms.

COVID-19 has taught us that these proper hygiene measures that livestock producers have applied for some time can be effective in preventing disease spread. The high-health swine barns and poultry operations, for example, where people shower in and out as they enter and leave facilities, are other examples of farm biosecurity measures that would surprise much of the general public.

Along with the national animal health week, the Alberta agriculture minister recognized the role rural veterinarians play in the agriculture industry as being part of the team that helps produce high-quality, safe, and nutritious animal protein. It was great that along with agriculture, grocery store and transportation workers were also recognized as essential services.

Along with working with meat-producing animals, veterinarians also play an important role in the health of pets and companion animals which contribute greatly to human well-being and emotional health.

These essential services have carried on during the pandemic, with online consultations along with curbside pickup of pets and supplies. In some veterinary practices, proper procedures have meant splitting the clinic staff into two teams so that emergency and essential services could be maintained on the farms.

More than pulling calves

It was amusing to hear in the agriculture minister’s announcement that one of the jobs veterinarians are still highly recognized for is “pulling calves.” That seems to get more attention, even though preventative medicine, reproduction, animal welfare, biosecurity, production issues and food safety are now much more commonly dealt with than calving difficulties. With good breeding programs, proper bull selection and heifer breeding, most calving difficulties have been eliminated.

With proper planning, COVID 19 protocols haven’t had a huge impact on veterinary care. Most producers have kept on doing what they are doing, staying in their own rural on-farm bubble, much like they usually do in the fall or spring.

Trips to town have been minimized and animal health supplies can often be brought to the farm by your veterinarian on the herd visit.

Since the removal of over-the-counter antibiotic sales except from veterinary clinics, the effects have been very very positive. Producers quickly realized that veterinarians are working hard to use fewer antimicrobials by all the preventative vaccination and management changes, which help to reduce stress and sickness in cattle. Antimicrobial costs have dropped because of competition, less usage and access to more generic products. More and more products in convenient formulations such as oral dewormers and pour-on painkillers have made for problem-free administration. And with more antimicrobials being packaged in plastic bottles, there has been less breakage and wastage.

All of these changes and more have made it pretty easy in most cases to establish the necessary veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR).

Timely advice, reminders and advancing each herd’s profitability and productivity are goals most veterinarians strive for on behalf of the beef producers. If they do well, the whole agricultural supply chain should do better. Everyone involved in agriculture should have job security because at the end of the day people still need to eat. And during this fall run, here’s hoping all the calves get settled with low stress and are disease-free as possible.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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