Most people’s connotation of rabies is a snarling mad dog, foaming at the mouth. But livestock are also susceptible, and the symptoms easily can be mistaken for some other problem. Unfortunately, the result is often human exposure when the owner or veterinarian tries to examine or treat the animal.

Rabies can occur in all warm-blooded animals and is always fatal. Caused by a virus that affects the nervous system, it’s transmitted by saliva of an infected animal – usually via a bite, by saliva coming in contact with mucous membranes (eyes, nose or mouth) or an opening in the skin.

Rabies is uncommon in cattle but there are always a few livestock cases when wildlife cases increase, as there are more opportunities for exposure.

This year in Texas, for instance, reports of rabid animals rose dramatically as the summer became hot and dry, and wildlife migrated closer to human habitation to find food and water. James Alexander, Regional Zoonosis Control Veterinarian, Texas Department of State Health Services, Canyon, TX, says cases in livestock and horses are much higher than usual this year.

Missy Looney, a vet technician with Central Plains Vet Clinic in Plainview, TX, says she saw six cases in the first three months of 2011, and almost 40 by July.

“Most of these were in skunks, but now we’re seeing spillover into other species. A rabid cow 60 miles east of us exposed at least six people, and a horse was brought to our clinic with neurological signs,” she says.

Alexander stresses that livestock owners need to pay attention to animal behavior. An animal acting out of character is a clue, as rabies symptoms in cattle and horses are unpredictable. For instance, a normally gentle or tame animal may suddenly become skittish or aggressive. Or, a typically wild animal may be unafraid.


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A big clue is an animal having trouble eating or drinking because it can’t swallow, a condition often mistaken for an obstruction in the mouth or throat.

“We’ve heard of many veterinarians or feedlot cowboys who think a certain animal is choking and try to get their hands down the throat to resolve it. We’ve also heard about a calf that wouldn’t take a bottle, and some friends/neighbors tried to help the family get the calf to suck. Both cases turned out to be rabies and all those people had to be treated,” Alexander says.

Looney says one vet in her clinic, while in vet school, worked with a show steer exhibiting neurological signs and not swallowing properly. Numerous students and veterinarians were exposed because they thought there was something caught in the mouth or throat. The animal wasn’t eating and when it was put down a week later, it tested positive for rabies. She reminds livestock owners that if an animal is put down, don’t shoot it in the head. The brain must be intact to send for testing.