Don’t worry, most pets can’t possibly get sick from foot and mouth disease (FMD). Dogs and cats are perfectly safe, so are birds, reptiles, ferrets, hedgehogs and rabbits. However, pet pigs are prone to this devastating disease. While horses are not susceptible, goats are. Dr. Randy Crom, senior staff veterinarian at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), concedes he’s not certain whether llamas and alpacas, which are sometimes kept as pets in some rural areas, could catch FMD.
“We have no concerns whatsoever about the safety of the vast majority of pets,” says Crom. “The issue is that they can spread the disease just as people can.” The virus can easily be carried on dogs’ paws, particularly muddy paws. Some literature suggest the virus can survive for a time and be spread from the nasal passages of people or pets to affected hoof stock. Crom agrees FMD is one of the most contagious viruses on earth.
That explains why the Crufts Dog Show in England, originally scheduled for March 9 through 11, was postponed. Show officials were not concerned that the participating dogs would get ill; however, they were worried that both the dogs and their people could act as carriers, then return to various places in England and conceivably spread the disease. Also, for the first time dogs from other nations in the European union were scheduled to be at Crufts. To that extent, the dog show became an international issue.
Aside from the 25,000 participating dogs, and their owners, more than 125,000 spectators attend this enormous dog show. Health officials in England and Ireland are also worried about large gatherings for fear of supporting the spread of FMD. It’s not only the dog show that was postponed, other public events have been downright canceled, including St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. (The Crufts Dog Show is tentatively re-scheduled for May 25 through 28 and will be broadcast on Animal Planet).
Crom says that in one sense people in the U.S. are unduly worried about their pets. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he says. “Nothing will happen to your dogs and cats.” However, if just one person visits rural England or France where FMD is located, and returns to give a pet pig or their livestock this disease, dreaded FMD is easily off and running in the U.S.
According to a 1983 study by the National Research Council’s Subcommittee on Research and Diagnosis of Foreign Animal Disease, a modest outbreak of FMD would cost the U.S. $54 to $690 billion to control, never mind the loss of thousands of hoof stock which would have to be killed, including swine. The emotional cost to American farms, and pet owners with pigs, goats or other affected animals could not be calculated. The economic costs can be added up: In 2000, the U.S. exported nearly $4 billion worth of beef, and those exports, as well as exports of pork and other products, would stop for anywhere from six months to a year minimum.
While there are vaccines available for FMD, there are different strains of the disease, and vaccinating for the correct strain is hit and miss. The USDA Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York is in the process of researching a vaccine to actually alter an affected animals’ genetic codes to make the infection impossible, just as it is for dogs, cats and people.
“We hope and believe the public will continue to adhere to our recommendations,” says Crom. If you do have a pet pig or goat, and you’ve visited an area known to be infected with FMD, precautions should be taken seriously, and they are listed on the USDA website (www.usda.gov).
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