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Cowboys gather a herd of grass-fed cattle into corrals south of Medora, N.D. Photo by James B. Miller, Jr. / Forum News Service

Anthrax confirmed in eastern Billings County; Agriculture Department cautions producers

BILLINGS COUNTY, N.D. — North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring confirmed in a release on Monday the presence of anthrax in a herd of cattle in a pasture in eastern Billings County.

State Veterinarian Dr. Susan Keller says that the state’s first reported case of anthrax this year is a reminder to livestock producers to take action to protect their animals from the disease, especially in areas with a past history of the disease.

“Producers in past known affected areas and counties should consult with their veterinarians to make sure the vaccination schedule for their animals is current,” Keller said. “Producers in Billings County and surrounding areas should confer with their veterinarians to determine if initiating first-time vaccinations against anthrax is warranted for their cattle at this time.”

The Billings County case was confirmed by the North Dakota State University Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory based on blood and tissue samples submitted by a veterinarian with Cross County Veterinary Service in Dickinson.

Anthrax can be found naturally in soil, but Keller and leading epidemiologists believe heavy rains have exposed bacterial spores in the soil that can lie dormant from animals who died in the past.

Anthrax in cattle manifests very rapidly once spores have been ingested, she said.

The cells then produce a lethal toxin that kills living cells and causes excess fluid to accumulate in the body’s tissue. As bacteria begins to multiply in the lymph nodes, the level of toxins increases rapidly and cause organ failure. It is believed that the disease symptoms last for less than a few hours, resulting in the most common symptom, death.

While anthrax has been most frequently reported in the northeast, southeast and south central portions of North Dakota, data concerning outbreaks has been found in almost every part of the state.

“Scattered heavy rain in that area may have contributed to the disease occurrence in that pasture,” Keller said concerning the Billings outbreak in western North Dakota.

While a few anthrax cases are reported in North Dakota each year, the most alarming numbers came in 2005 when more than 500 confirmed deaths from anthrax were reported, with total losses estimated at more than 1,000 head.

The State Veterinarian’s Office said it wanted to alleviate any concerns from the public, noting that anthrax posed almost no threat to the general public or local communities in the area.

“The threat really only lies with other livestock in the area, and the ranchers, employees and family who would be handling the carcass disposal,” Keller said. “This is not the form of anthrax that puts the fear into people, this is not concentrated dried spores — it is the bacteria that is killing the animals.”

Speaking to the concerns faced by area producers, Keller said that precautions should be taken to protect against anthrax exposure.

“We really need to broaden the area with vaccinations for livestock. Vectors and flies on cattle can possibly transmit the disease to other animals,” she said. “We want to ensure that producers are using fly control because that is another method it can spread through the herd.”

Keller had advice for producers in the area who are concerned for their own herds: vaccinate.

“If a producer, especially in that area, finds an animal that is deceased they need to contact their veterinarian,” Keller said. “Most people, based on the phone calls and communication that has gone out in that county, have already vaccinated or are in the process. Moving fast on vaccinations is important.”

She had nothing but praise to say about the rancher whose property the cattle with anthrax were identified.

“I really can’t commend this producer enough because this happened on Friday, and he had his herd vaccinated and treated on Saturday,” she said. “The deceased animals were disposed of properly all day Sunday.”

Keller added, “He and his neighbors, the county officials, everyone just acted so quickly, which is very important to having protected other livestock and wildlife in the area.”

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