Ask the vet: Foot and Mouth Disease

Foot and mouth disease has been in the news lately, impacting the red-meat value chain and farmers very negatively. The disease has spread to an extent never seen before in South Africa. The reliance on livestock farming makes poor rural households much more vulnerable to the impact of the disease.


Foot and mouth disease (FMD) is a highly contagious livestock disease. It is caused by a virus and infects cloven-hoofed livestock (cattle, sheep, goats and pigs), as well as cloven-hoofed game. To date, the only confirmed reservoir in wildlife is the African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), from which ‘spillage’ into domestic livestock happens from time to time.

This is essentially applicable to the FMD situation in South Africa and other parts of Africa where the Southern African Territories (SAT) serotype of the FMD virus occurs. This situation is not applicable to other serotypes, which are maintained and spread from cattle, with no buffalo involved.

FMD is considered a herd disease, which means that even if only one animal is found to be sick, the rest of the herd is considered infected. The disease spreads rapidly and with ease, which is one of the reasons why governments move in swiftly to contain the spread, and why early reporting of anything suspicious is critical.


Once animals are infected, it may take a few days before the symptoms of disease emerge. This is the most dangerous period since they can infect other animals without the owner being aware that they are sick.

Some animals may display excessive salivation, mouth discomfort, tongue or lip-smacking, chewing, and muzzle and lip lesions (which may start as blisters). Animals may also be lame and reluctant to stand and/or walk. These animals may also be seen kicking the air and also showing some feet lesions.

They tend to feed less because of the pain of the lesions in their mouths and foot lesions that may discourage walking. The disease can be tentatively diagnosed based on the clinical symptoms, but an accredited laboratory confirmatory diagnosis is crucial.


The disease has no treatment but death is not common among infected animals, with the exception of young animals and other immuno-compromised herd mates, and depending on the serotype involved. Animals that recover from infection may sometimes carry the virus and initiate new outbreaks of the disease later.


Humans are not susceptible to the disease, making it of no public health concern. It is however important to note that after handling an infected animal one can harbour the virus in one’s respiratory tract for up to 48 hours. This means it is possible for humans to pass the virus onto susceptible animals.

It is for this reason that it is generally recommended that if one has been in contact with infected or even possibly infected animals, one needs to avoid handling susceptible animal species for up to five days.


The good news is that, like most diseases, it is preventable. Farmers can start by applying general management techniques to prevent exposure of susceptible animals to the virus.

These are some highly effective preventative measures a farmer can consider:

■ Controlled introduction of new animals into existing herds, even if they are from a reputable source with a known health status.

■ Tight control over people’s access to your livestock and equipment.

■ Regular cleaning and disinfection of livestock pens, buildings, vehicles and equipment.

■ Monitor and report diseases to your veterinary support structures.

■ Appropriate disposal of manure and dead animals.

Disinfecting hands and clothes will further reduce the risk of transmission to susceptible animals. This is a globally accepted biosecurity measure for many other infectious diseases as well.


Products from infected animals can also contain the virus. These include meat, milk, and their by-products. In fact, the virus can be found in all bodily fluids of infected animals.

In addition to the above control measures, government will from time to time gazette a temporary or permanent directive controlling animal movement. If unsure about the status of any area in the country, please familiarise yourself with updated rules on the gathering and movement of susceptible animals. The nearest state veterinary office should be the first point of contact before any animals are moved.

Vaccination against FMD is controlled by government and currently only used in predetermined high-risk areas where it’s believed the vaccination approach is likely to yield good results, in addition to other measures put in place. The vaccine is therefore only procured by state veterinary officials through Onderstepoort Biological Products (OBP).

It is in the interest of South Africa’s international trade to not go beyond the need to vaccinate only where it is absolutely necessary.

Animals tend to fight infections better when they are in a good state of nutrition. One of the ways farmers can help keep animals healthy is by supplying adequate nutrition, including micro-nutrient supplementation at strategic times of the year. Farmers are also advised to maintain the routine vaccination of their livestock against other common livestock diseases for which vaccines are available.


A disease of such economic importance requires as many role players as possible to be on the same page, and knowledge gaps among various stakeholders must be greatly reduced.

It is for this reason that farmers and anyone who comes into contact with vulnerable cloven-hoofed animals remain on high-alert and report any animals displaying suspicious symptoms timeously. It’s crucial for farmers to follow the rules at all times and ask when they are uncertain.

The festive season traditionally sees an increase in animal movement for various reasons, including ritual slaughter, lobola, or general trade as migrant workers head home at the end of the year with a bit of extra cash to grow their herds. People are also moving around much more compared to other times of the year. It is therefore a particularly vulnerable period. Everyone should be extra vigilant to avoid unknowingly becoming the weakest biosecurity link in their community.

The adherence to strict biosecurity practices can save the industry from avoidable disease-related losses. Please contact your local state veterinarian, animal-health technician or extension officer to find out if your animals are within the FMD-controlled area and what control measures you must adhere to. If you suspect your animals may have FMD, please notify your state veterinarian, nearest veterinarian, animal-health technician, or extension officer. Do not move any animals from the property until the state veterinarian has confirmed the animals do not have FMD.

Owners are responsible for the health of their animals and may be prosecuted under the Animal Disease Act 1984 (Act No. 35 of 1984) and the Consumer Protection Act 2008 (Act No. 68 of 2008) if they propagate the spread of FMD.

Speak to your local veterinarian or animal-health technician regarding customised vaccination programmes that can help make a difference in your livestock operation.

Please feel free to contact us on or (012) 522 1500.

share this