Zoonoses Associated with Cattle

Zoonoses Associated with Cattle

This document provides information on various diseases that can be passed from cattle to humans. Many times, these diseases do not make the animal appear sick but can cause serious illness in humans. Persons with specific medical conditions such as an immunodeficiency and pregnancy may be at higher risk of developing disease or complications from a zoonotic disease and should consult with their physician before working with cattle. The diseases associated with cattle include: ringworm, Q fever, chlamydiosis, leptospirosis, campylobacterosis, salmonellosis, listeriosis, yersiniosis, cryptosporidiosis and infections with pathogenic strains of Escherichia coli, Mycobacterium paratuberculosis, campylobacteriosis, MRSA, rabies, and Anthrax. Additional information on zoonotic diseases can be found on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Website, Healthy Pets, Healthy People.


Diseases associated with direct contact

Tuberculosis and brucellosis are potential zoonoses in cattle but due to a federal eradication program for Mycobacterium bovis (bovine tuberculosis), Brucella abortus and Brucella melitensis, these diseases are uncommon in the United States except in a few areas where it persists in a wildlife reservoir. Animals affected by Brucellosis usually do not present any signs of illness but are suspected of having the disease when reproductive problems are evidenced as infection in the reproductive organs, abortions and stillbirth, or weakened offspring. People can become infected after consumption of raw (unpasteurized) dairy products or direct contact with infected animals or animal tissues and fluids, such as blood. The bacteria can penetrate damaged skin and mucous membranes. Infected people typically have flu-like symptoms and the disease can affect the reproductive organs and cause miscarriages. Bovine tuberculosis, although much rarer in people than the disease caused by M. tuberculosis, is a concern as it can also cause severe illness and death. The most common way people become infected with M. bovis is by consumption of contaminated, unpasteurized dairy products. It is also possible to become infected via direct contact with animals including cattle, bison, and cervids (e.g., deer, elk) and their products (i.e., milk, meat, hides), or body fluids, such as blood, since the bacteria can penetrate abraded skin. Inhalation of this agent in contaminated air is also a possible way of contracting the disease. Signs of the illness in animals include weakness, loss of appetite and weight, fever, etc. Symptoms in people affected by bovine tuberculosis include fever and weight loss and can affect several organs depending on the route of infection. Accidental exposure to live Brucella abortus vaccine can transmit infection and requires prompt medical attention.

Dermatophytosis is a fungal skin infection commonly known as “ringworm” and is seen in both animals and people as scaly round areas of hair loss. Transmission of ringworm is by direct contact with an infected animal but can also be transmitted from contaminated objects. For prevention, wear gloves when handling animals and wash hands after contact.


Diseases associated vectors and contaminated materials

Q fever , Chlamydophila psittaci and Chlamydophila abortus are agents associated with abortion in pregnant cattle but may be also carried by normal animals. There is a high concentration of the above agents at the time that the animals give birth, so particular care needs to be used in handling newborn animals, placental tissues, and other products of conception. These agents can be acquired by direct contact with placental membranes and fetuses, by aerosol and inhalation of dust particles contaminated with dried feces, urine, or other fluids from infected cattle and by accidental exposure to live (Q fever) vaccine. In people, symptoms can include malaise, fever, chills or sweats, muscle aches and chest pain. Persons who are pregnant, immunosuppressed, or with heart valve defects or other chronic disease condition should consult with a physician before working with pregnant or birthing cattle. Q fever and Chlamydophila infections in pregnant women are associated with infectious abortion or miscarriage.

Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that causes reproductive problems, anemia, liver and kidney disease in cattle. The bacteria are typically shed in the urine of infected animals. People acquire the infection by accidental ingestion and contact with contaminated urine, placenta, and fetal tissues. The organism can infect through abraded skin. In people, the disease causes fever, headache, abdominal and muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, and rash. In more severe cases, it can cause hemorrhagic pneumonia, liver and kidney failure and can lead to death.

 Mycobacterium paratuberculosis is the causative agent of Johne’s disease in cattle and may be associated with Crohn’s disease in people but it is not yet determined if this agent causes disease in people. Salmonellosis, campylobacterosis, listeriosis, cryptosporidiosis and infections with pathogenic E. coli and Mycobacterium paratuberculosis are acquired by contact and accidental ingestion of fecal material from infected animals. Animals infected with these diseases typically have diarrhea, but some animals may show no symptoms of disease. Any animal with diarrhea should be suspect of having a zoonotic disease. Symptoms in people include abdominal pain, diarrhea, and fever. Yersiniosis is acquired through bites from infected fleas or from contact with body fluids from infected animals. Symptoms of yersiniosis in people can include high fever and chills, headache, malaise, and swollen lymph nodes.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) are bacteria that have acquired resistance to certain antibiotics. They can be found on the skin of healthy animals and people, where they can opportunistically cause infections. People can get infected after direct contact with animals carrying these bacteria. If left untreated, the infection can progress to septicemia and affect other organs including the lungs.

Rabies is a fatal viral infection that can be transmitted by bites and mucus membrane exposure from an infected animal. Domestic animals can be infected from contact with wildlife such as bats, skunks, and raccoons. Infected animals often exhibit neurological symptoms and unusual behavior. Rabies is rare in the Pacific Northwest but if a person is bitten or has salivary mucus membrane contact from a suspect animal, the animal should be tested for the rabies virus. If exposed, persons should seek post-exposure rabies prophylaxis from a medical professional immediately.

Anthrax is caused by a bacterium (Bacillus anthracis) that is present in the environment and can infect animals, including livestock, through ingestion of contaminated water, soil, or plants. Although Anthrax is rare in the United States, it is still of concern. People can become infected and severely ill after contact with affected animals (live or dead) and their products (e.g., hide, etc.) or by consuming food contaminated with bacterial spores. Infection can happen via accidental ingestion of spores or by penetration of bacteria through abraded skin. Infected animals can die quickly so owners do not always perceive any signs of illness. Signs in animals affected by this disease can include fever, depression, difficulty breathing, staggering, and seizures. Symptoms in people can include skin reactions in the case of cutaneous Anthrax, with formation of blisters followed by ulceration of skin, or in the case of infection via ingestion of spores, symptoms include stomach pain, diarrhea (that could be bloody), sore throat and difficulty swallowing, swelling of neck, fever, chills, and redness in the eyes and face.


Individuals with exposure to animals and animal environments may develop allergic reactions to animal proteins (allergens). Approximately 20-30 percent of individuals working with laboratory animals will develop an allergic reaction to animal proteins and 5-10 percent of individuals will develop asthma. Personnel may be exposed to allergens through inhalation and contact with skin, eyes and mucous membranes. Animal allergens may be present in animal dander, hair, skin, urine, saliva, serum and any contaminated feed or bedding materials. Risk factors for developing an allergic reaction include history of previous allergies to animals. The signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction are nasal discharge and congestion, conjunctivitis, tearing and eye itching, skin redness, rash or hives and lower airway symptoms (coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath).  Individuals with symptoms suggestive of an allergic reaction related to a workplace allergen should report their concerns to their supervisor and consult a physician.


Transmission of zoonotic diseases from animals is primarily by direct contact, contact with contaminated bedding or materials, oral ingestion or inhalation of aerosolized fluids. We can protect ourselves from most diseases by using the following procedures:

  • Handle animals safely to avoid kicks, goring, trampling and crush injuries.
  • Do not eat, drink, apply cosmetics or use tobacco products while handling animals or in animal housing areas.
  • Wear gloves when handling ill animals, animal tissues, body fluids and waste and wash hands after contact.
  • Wear dedicated protective clothing such as a coat or coveralls and shoe-covers or boots when handling animals. Launder the soiled clothing separate from your personal clothes and preferably at the animal facility.
  • Wear respiratory protection when appropriate.
  • Keep animal areas clean and disinfect equipment after using it on animals or in animal areas.

Most importantly, familiarize yourself about the animals that you will be working with and the potential zoonotic diseases associated with each species. If at any time, you suspect that you have acquired a zoonotic disease, inform your supervisor and seek medical care.


**Prepared by Office of the Campus Veterinarian and the Office of Research Assurances January 2021