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Cattle lessons in coronavirus

When the term “coronavirus” first hit the public news media in January and February, many people were hearing it for the first time. But not cattlemen. Coronavirus has been a topic at cattle health seminars for years, and a scourge to baby calves for just as long. It’s often found as one of the causative organisms in calf scours outbreaks that sometimes sweep through herds, killing newborns within the first few days of life.

The cattle coronavirus is not the same as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 in humans. The only similarity is that they both come from a class of viruses with that now-familiar corona protein alignment around the edges.

I asked Gregg Hanzlicek, director of the field investigation unit of the Kansas State University Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, about the connections and similarities of the cattle virus to COVID-19.

SF: So we’re sure it’s not the same virus?

GH: They’re not that closely related. It’s a family of viruses that you find in dogs, cats, cattle, and humans. They’re species specific. I’ve compared it to maple trees: There are lots of different kinds of them even though they are in the same tree family.

SF: Where do we see coronavirus in cattle?

GH: Most often we see it in the intestines of young calves, where it can cause intense scours, usually at about 10 to 30 days old. The organism is everywhere, on every farm and ranch. When it flares up, there’s probably something else that triggers it. The two primary triggers are either the calf didn’t get enough colostrum, or maybe there was just poor overall sanitation in the calving area. The calf becomes overwhelmed with disease challenges, and that’s when the coronavirus has opportunity.

We also see coronavirus in respiratory illness in older calves, a disease often called summer or pasture pneumonia. There’s some disagreement among cattle health experts as to whether they are different organisms, or the same. 

SF: In humans facing coronavirus, we’ve learned to social distance. Does that work for calves, too, by separating newborns from older calves? For instance, the Sandhills Calving System?

GH: Absolutely, that’s a major part of controlling coronavirus and other diseases in calves. We are reducing the amount of virus the young calf is exposed to.

SF: What happens to calves when it hits?

GH: The biggest thing is that they lose body fluids due to the scours and dehydrate. Their organs start to shut down, and they die. We don’t have antiviral drugs, so the treatment is to provide fluids with electrolytes. Regardless of the organism involved in calf diarrhea, administering fluids with electrolytes is the appropriate therapy.

SF: Is there a cattle vaccine for coronavirus?

GH: Yes, there are several available for calf diarrhea. There’s even an intranasal one. The vaccines have their place on cow-calf operations, but they’re only tools. Colostrum management and calving area sanitation are still the key preventatives.

SF: The COVID-19 coronavirus apparently jumped from animals to humans. Do you worry that could happen again?

GH: I don’t see it. There are a couple of diseases that are zoonotic, such as salmonella (a bacteria) and cryptosporidiosis (a protozoa). But these coronaviruses are species specific. I really don’t lose sleep about this. There are some researchers who are looking at this possibility as a precaution, but at this time there is no reason to believe cattle can carry or become infected with COVID-19.

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