Forget Mad Cow Disease: Rabies Is on the Rise Among Texas Cattle

Texas cows are going through it.
Texas cows are going through it. Photo by Andreas Klammer on Unsplash
Picture this: You’re traipsing through a sprawling Texas field and a 2,000-pound cow suddenly approaches. It’s salivating a ton and could even appear to be choking. Stumbling toward you, it bellows fiercely.

Not to be alarmist, friends, but that animal may have rabies. According to a news release from Pet Talk, a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University (TAMU), rabies has spiked among Texas cattle in 2021. This year, cases have already exceeded those from 2020, which in turn had reported double the number of infections recorded in 2019.

All warm-blooded animals are susceptible to rabies, which is nearly always fatal, said Pam Douglas, the infection control coordinator at TAMU’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. It’s rare among cattle, but it can quickly spread throughout herds, posing a real threat.

“Rabies is caused by a virus that affects the nervous system and is transmitted by the saliva of an infected animal, usually via a bite or by saliva coming in contact with mucous membranes (eyes, nose, or mouth) or an opening in the skin,” she said in a news release. “Rabies is uncommon in cattle but there can be some instances when cases in nearby wildlife increase ... [and] there are more opportunities for exposure.”

So what’s driving these numbers up? Dr. Dusty Nagy, a clinical associate professor in food animal medicine with the same school, suspects it's likely one main culprit: skunks. The majority of cases in cattle have been caused by the disease’s skunk variant.

Experts hypothesize that over the past year, there have been fewer cars on the road as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, Nagy said. While that may be good for air quality, it also means less roadkill. And the more rabid skunks that keep on living, the more they'll keep infecting livestock, too.

“Once you get it you are likely going to die from it.” – Dr. Dusty Nagy

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The variety of rabies is identified according to wildlife reservoir, with some of the most common variants being skunk, raccoon and bat, she said. Bats reign in Missouri, but on the East Coast, raccoons are the primary cause.

And this year in North Texas, the state’s health department is reporting that the skunk variant looms large. Regardless of where it comes from, though, Nagy warns that rabies is highly unpleasant to all.

“We consider rabies to be a fatal disease," she said. “In the human literature where they institute pretty aggressive treatments, there are very few cases of cure.

“It is one of those diseases that we consider once you get it," she continued, "you are likely going to die from it.”

Nagy graduated from veterinary school in 1995, but it wasn’t until this year that she saw her first positive case. Another one recently hit her desk, too, with both having occurred within the past six weeks.

Nagy urges people to avoid approaching an animal that’s acting out of sorts. While it’s a good thing that many want to save and care for injured wildlife, it can also put people at serious risk of infection.

Some may mistakenly believe an animal is simply sick and attempt to catch it to seek help. Be careful, Nagy said: Rabies symptoms can widely vary.

“I’m a Stephen King fan, so when people mention rabies to me, Cujo’s always one of the first things I think of,” she said. "But not every animal that’s affected is out biting and really aggressive. A lot of them are stuporous and act depressed and are quiet.”

When people are bitten by a rabid animal, they can also present symptoms that may be easily overlooked by health care professionals, Nagy said. Some could develop fever, headache, nausea or vomiting, while others may experience agitation, anxiety or confusion.

If a patient reports feeling anxious or depressed, rabies won’t be at the top of a doctor’s list of possible ailments, she said. It’s critical to let providers know whether you’ve come in contact with a wild animal in recent days.

If bitten by a rabid animal, or if saliva contacts your mucous membranes, call a healthcare provider and clean the affected area with water and soap, Douglas said. Livestock owners should also notify their local veterinarian and state authorities if an outbreak occurs to prevent further transmissions.

The upside is that the disease can be prevented with vaccines, which, of course, doctors recommend for humans and their animals, including small livestock herds.

And if you see a skunk moping around your lawn — or a cow, God forbid — be sure to run in the other direction.

“It is not an incredibly common disease,” Nagy said. "But knowledge and understanding is certainly important, because it is one of those things that we have some potential to pick up from animals that could be deadly.”
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter