Published on 03/28/01

Foot-and-mouth a Threat to U.S. Livestock

Foot-and-mouth disease poses a threat to the United States because of the high volume of traffic between Europe and the United States, says a University of Georgia expert.

The latest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease began in mid-February and threatens much of Europe. The disease rarely harms humans, but humans can transport the disease.

Because of this, the European outbreak has been the cause of great concern in the United States, said Ronnie Silcox, an Extension Service animal scientist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Foot-and-mouth disease has been a problem in many parts of the world for many years, Silcox said. Outbreaks have been reported in South America, Asia and Africa. Because the outbreaks were in less developed parts of the world, though, the spread of the disease was limited.

The United States has not had a case of foot-and-mouth disease since 1929.

Disease Harsh, Not Fatal

But the disease is highly contagious. It affects any cloven-footed animal. The greatest economic threat comes from infected livestock, such as cattle, hogs and sheep.

Initially, the disease has a harsh effect on the animal. It runs a high temperature and develops blisters around the mouth and tongue and on the hooves, Silcox said. The animal doesn't eat because of the blisters in the mouth.

"The big thing you'd see with this disease is that the animal will lose weight," Silcox said. "And in dairy cattle, milk production drops tremendously. It can take several months for the animal to regain the weight.

The dairy cattle may never return to production levels reached before the disease, Silcox said.

Foot-and-mouth disease isn't normally fatal, but it can cause death in very young animals. The disease usually runs its course in two to three weeks, Silcox said.

When an animal becomes infected, though, it runs a higher risk of catching another illness, he said. Female animals also have a higher risk of abortions.

Though the disease is highly contagious, the virus that causes it is fragile, Silcox said. It can't stand a range of conditions. Heat, for instance, easily kills the virus.

Strict Regulations

"It would be a terrible disease if it got started in the United States because it has such a serious impact on the livestock," Silcox said. "Because of this, regulations on imports and the handling of products from countries with confirmed cases have been in place in the United States for years. We're pretty careful about what we bring into the country."

To protect the United States from this latest outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has banned imports of farm products from Europe that may transmit the disease. Security has also been heightened on travelers and cargo coming from Europe.

"If you're doing any international traveling," Silcox said, "don't bring any agricultural products into the country."

For further information on foot-and-mouth disease, call the USDA at 1-800-601-9327. Or check the Internet at (

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.