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Stop the spread: 6 common signs of livestock illness

As we’ve all seen over the last few months, the outbreak of an infectious disease can have disastrous and widespread effects. Though an outbreak on your farm is not on the same scale as a pandemic, a few of the outcomes can be very similar: operational shutdowns and substantial financial losses.

Health authorities advise the public to conduct frequent self-assessments to identify any early signs of a COVID-19 infection. This self-screening process can help to slow the spread and decrease the mortality rate by catching an infection early. The same can be done for your livestock. By frequently monitoring your animals for the following early signs of illness, you can protect your operation from an outbreak and safeguard your finances.

Lethargy and lameness

If an animal exhibits an uncharacteristic lack of energy or is reluctant to or cannot stand, this may signal a problem. Though weakness is a symptom of numerous illnesses, Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) is often the culprit. This highly contagious virus can affect cattle, swine, sheep, goats and deer and spreads across species, posing a substantial threat to your operation.


High temperatures and fever are signs of several livestock illnesses, most often bacterial or viral infections. Checking the temperature of your livestock can be tricky, as readings will fluctuate depending on the time of day or temperature outside. Make sure you are aware of the normal rectal temperature ranges for each species and take into account any external factors that may cause a rise in internal temperature.

Appetite loss

Loss of appetite can be a result of many factors, some of which may not threaten your entire herd. However, lack of interest in food and weight loss can be one of the first signs of a larger problem. Be sure to investigate any animals that aren’t eating to ensure the behavior isn’t cause for concern.


Dehydration is not always a sign of disease but should be identified and remedied as soon as possible. Consistently check your animals for signs of dehydration and heat stress, such as sunken eyes, a prolonged “skin tent” after pinching the skin and dark yellow urine. Place water troughs in multiple locations and ensure your livestock have access to shade on hot, sunny days.

Behavioral changes

If any of your animals demonstrate erratic or abnormal behavior, the cause may be a neurological disease. Rabies, tetanus, poisoning and anaplasmosis are only a few examples – all of which should be taken very seriously. Call a vet to conduct an examination and isolate any oddly behaving animals as soon as you identify them.


Loose stool is a symptom of numerous livestock viruses and can be a substantial threat because of its ability to spread infection. Isolate any animals with this symptom and immediately clean the affected area. Assess livestock with diarrhea for any other signs of illness, and closely monitor them while symptoms persist.

For more common signs of illness in livestock, check out this informational packet created by the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development. If you’re still worried about the risk of infection, visit our Agriculture Policies page to learn how we can help protect you and your animals.

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