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Survival stories and lessons learned from a dairy vet’s wife

Erica Louder for Progressive Dairyman Published on 24 February 2016
A dairy vet's wife

When faced with the facts, it’s hard to argue that production agriculture is not a dangerous line of work. Recently, I read a Forbes article that ranked farming and ranching as the fourth most deadly occupation in America.

You would be hard-pressed to find a farm or dairy that hasn’t seen a major workplace injury. In order to protect employees from these accidents, farms establish protocols, hire experienced individuals and have mandatory training periods.

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These practices are there to protect employees but also to protect businesses. For the most part, these precautions do well in preventing major workplace injuries. However, there remains another risk to the health and safety of employees that is often ignored.

Zoonotic diseases (diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans) may not be as seemingly deadly as farming accidents, but they are surely more prevalent. In a presentation given at Iowa State University, Dr. Indgrid Trevino listed 14 cattle zoonotic diseases present in the U.S. From those 14, four are endemic on most livestock operations: E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter and cryptosporidiosis.

These organisms are primarily spread through the feces of infected animals. On a dairy, contact with manure is pretty unavoidable. That contact can, in many instances, lead to a zoonotic infection, especially if there is an active infection among the animals.

I will be the first to admit a failure to protect my “employee” from one of these common zoonotic diseases. That employee is actually my 3-year-old daughter, Cora. My husband is a dairy veterinarian, and he fills Cora’s head with all sorts of veterinary nonsense.

She can spout off the drug and dosage used to treat pinkeye and describe a “DA” surgery. Even before she could walk, she went on farm calls and participated in chores at home. Given this lifestyle, cow manure is nothing new to her. When she was just shy of her second birthday, this affinity for veterinary work took its first toll.

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On our operation, we have raised dairy calves off and on. Last year, we were purchasing these calves from a client to graft on to a couple of nurse cows. We usually give the calves bottles for a couple of feedings until we can teach them to nurse.

As I am sure you know, working with Holstein calves is pretty labor-intensive. It was all hands on deck for a couple of days, Cora included.

Shortly after starting a new batch of calves, Cora broke with severe diarrhea. Given her symptoms, we were fearful it was salmonella. When I found mucus and blood in her stool, the diagnosis was definitive.

Simultaneously, we had learned the dairy we had purchased the calves from was having an outbreak. Maybe it would have happened despite our efforts but, in the end, our toddler had contracted salmonella due to our negligence.

In truth, this wasn’t my first run-in with a zoonotic disease. Several years earlier, I had another breakdown of disease protocol, but this time I was the victim. While I was in college, I assisted in a research project on a calf ranch. Due to my own inattention to cleanliness, I got cryptosporidiosis from the calves.

Given the incubation period of crypto, I can almost pinpoint my exposure. On the first day of the project, I caught myself frequently with my pen in my mouth as I recorded data from the day-old calves.

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In both incidences, recovery was a drawn-out process; there were a couple of weeks of active infection with several months of getting back to normal. Through these experiences, I learned a couple of lessons. The first lesson was: There is a very real risk of infection from livestock.

Having been around cattle my entire life, I’ve grown complacent to the animals in general. They are part of my lifestyle and my occupation.

I enjoy working and being around them, just as other people like repairing cars or fixing computers. It’s just that people cannot contract diseases from cars or computers. Cleanliness after being with cattle isn’t just something my mother scolded me about; it’s actually pretty important.

In Trevino’s presentation, she went on to describe that personal hygiene is the single-most effective way to reduce a zoonotic infection. The first lesson is: Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands – and never put pens in your mouth, particularly when recording data on scoured calves.

The second lesson was gaining an understanding of the concept of acquired immunity. From Saunders Comprehensive Veterinary Dictionary, acquired immunity is described as: antigen-specific immunity attributed to the production of antibodies following exposure to that antigen.

In both of my run-ins with zoonotic diseases, only one of the involved parties was infected. During Cora’s incident, my husband and I were not sick even though we were much more involved with the same calves. Subsequently, we changed hundreds of diapers while actively shedding salmonella without issue.

In my case of cryptosporidiosis, the other researcher never was ill despite his exposure to the same calves. The importance of cleanliness definitely played a role, but I think acquired immunity played the bigger part.

Acquired immunity builds over a series of days, months or years when you have an exposure to that strain of disease. It is not enough to make you sick, but it’s enough for your body’s immune system to kick in and build antibodies against that disease.

When an active infection (like an outbreak of salmonella) hits your body, it is prepared to fight it. Someone who has never had exposure or only minimal exposure will likely get sick.

When it comes to protecting your employees from the ongoing threat of zoonotic diseases, these two lessons should be on the forefront of your mind. To address the first lesson, emphasize the risk of infection and the importance of cleanliness when working. An easily accessible sink and frequent hand washing can do much to prevent disease transfer.

There isn’t an application of the second lesson, per se, but just an understanding of the concept. Acquired immunity is the reason why one employee may get sick while working alongside another employee who did not get sick.

It could be the reason you have never been sick, despite outbreaks among your animals. Oddly enough, a lack of exposure to the bugs, particularly the strains found on your operation, is a risk to your employees, especially new employees.

An understanding of acquired immunity gives you the knowledge to reduce the risk of infection in the first place and a possible source to trace when employees do fall ill.

While farming accidents remain the larger threat to the health and safety of your employees, zoonotic diseases should not be ignored. A sick employee results in lower productivity in the same way an injured employee does.

The efficiency of your operation and its long-term success has much to do with your employees. Having some knowledge of zoonotic diseases and then applying that knowledge can pay dividends in the long run.  PD

Erica Louder is a freelancer based in Idaho.

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