There are many obstacles in the path of ranchers on a daily basis and keeping cows and calves healthy is one of the biggest challenges.
This challenge intensifies when the concern for contracting diseases from livestock poses a threat. Among the most serious of these diseases is called cryptosporidiosis, commonly referred to as crypto.
Crypto is a diarrheal disease caused by microscopic parasites. The parasites are passed in the stool of an infected animal or person. This infection may result in a disease that can be transmitted from sick calves, lambs, piglets and goat kids to humans, creating a concern for people in contact with livestock.
An estimated 748,000 cases of crypto are reported annually, but over 98 percent of cases go unreported. The disease typically originates from drinking water or food contaminated by fecal matter, or being in contact with infected livestock, creating a risk for livestock handlers.
Oregon’s incidence of crypto is twice the national rate (2.6 per 100,000 persons). Cases occur year-round with peaks in August that coincide with increases in exposure to recreational water. Late winter and spring calving season also poses a threat to Oregon cattlemen and women as young calves are handled in order to vaccinate, tag and brand. Contact with infected calves during these activities has been blamed for the transmission of crypto to ranchers.
Crypto can be passed by putting anything in one’s mouth that has been in contact with the feces of an infected person or animal. Those sickened with crypto often don’t suspect contamination from the feces of sick calves and don’t know to tell medical personnel of their handling and contact with young calves. This can put off testing for the disease and delay an accurate diagnosis. Ranchers, dairymen, veterinary students and others working around young calves need to be aware of and take precautions against infection.
Infected people not only experience severe diarrhea, but they also suffer from abdominal cramps, dehydration, headaches, vomiting, fever, malaise and muscle cramps. Without medical attention, death can occur in severe cases. Children, pregnant women, people with compromised immune systems and the elderly are the most vulnerable and typically have the most severe reaction to this parasite. Unfortunately, there is no commonly advised specific treatment for cryptosporidiosis, and recovery usually depends on the health of your immune system and medical assistance to help treat the symptoms. It is a communicable disease that must be reported to the Oregon Health Authority.
Calves infected with crypto can become weak and lethargic and have diarrhea that can be mild or severe in intensity. Feces can contain mucus, blood or undigested milk, and are yellow or pale and watery. In some cases, the persistent diarrhea might result in marked weight loss and emaciation. Infected calves can have crypto in their feces for weeks after they are no longer sick. Adult cows can also be infected. However, they might not show any signs of infection depending on the strength of their immune system.
The incidence of bovine crypto diarrhea is higher on dairy farms where confinement and the moist environment is conducive to spread the parasite. However, it is also being identified more often in beef herds in the West. Veterinarian Dr. Scott Davis, who works throughout Central Oregon, said crypto in calves is fairly common.
“It’s not unusual for calves to be sickened with a disease and then develop crypto as a secondary disease, since immunosuppressed and stressed animals are more susceptible to crypto,” Davis said. “In addition, crypto can further degrade the calf’s immunity making the animal at greater risk for co-infection with other diseases.”
The best way to diagnose crypto is to work with your vet and submit a fecal sample to the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic laboratory at Oregon State University.
Davis recommends wearing dedicated clothing and shoes when working in the barn or corral, and remove all of it before entering the main part of the house. Wash hands with soap and running water for 20 seconds before eating or drinking after working with animals on the farm. Avoid touching your mouth when working with animals. Avoid eating or drinking in the barn. Keep pets out of the barn to keep them from becoming infected and tracking manure into the house. Provide play areas for children that are located away from calf housing or other areas of the farm that may be contaminated with manure.
There isn’t an effective or approved treatment for crypto in cattle. Many will recover on their own. Sick calves should be housed in a clean, warm, and dry environment and receive intensive support. Keeping sick calves hydrated and adequately nourished is critical. Moving unaffected cows and calves to a clean area and away from infected calves will help prevent the spread of disease to other calves. Ranchers should be cautious when bringing in dairy calves to graft onto beef cows, as dairy calves can be a source of infection.
— Scott Duggan is a Central Oregon-based livestock specialist with the OSU Extension Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.