A tale of respiratory disease

So the past two weeks I’ve been battling a chest cold. I finally bit the bullet and went to my doctor today Diagnosis: bronchitis. I have asthma and a history of bronchitis and pneumonia, so I was expecting this. I got a script for antibiotics a lecture about inhalers and taking it easy. This got me thinking about this advertisement email I got the other day:

Meyer's Natural Beef

This email has all sorts of things I’d like to talk about, but for today, I’ll stick to the antibiotic free part.

Consumers are looking for for more natural beef. I’m all about market development but where does that leave cattle producers from a welfare standpoint? Animals get sick. As a farmer, I do my best to keep my cattle healthy though best management practices and an intensive preventative medicine plans developed in conjunction with our herd health vet.

Respiratory disease is the most common disease in cattle. The bovine lung is more susceptible to respiratory disease than other livestock species. Cattle have small lungs, relative to the animals’ size, and the lungs are set deep in the chest.

Image of calf lung relative to calf size. Source: lungprotection.com

Image of calf lung relative to calf size. Source: lungprotection.com

Once viruses and bacteria get into the lungs, it’s easy for them to stay. Then when aggravating factors – such as stress, dust, heat, cold, or wind – make it difficult for the lungs to perform their usual self-protective functions, the viruses and bacteria can grow and cause infection. Even a small loss of lung capacity from infection can be a serious event because cattle have no lung tissue to spare. Consider this comparison between the lungs of cattle and horses. Cattle have 250% of the oxygen needs of horses but only 30% of the lung capacity. When cattle have reduced lung capacity from infection, they can consume even less of the oxygen that is essential to their overall health. (Source: Lungprotection.com)

What does this mean for the antibiotic free beef movement? Where are the ethics of not treating sick animals?

The National Farm Animal Care Code for Cattle Animal Health Requirements for Sick and Injured Care are:

Provide appropriate care, convalescence or treatment for sick, injured or lame cattle without delay. Monitor the animals’ response to therapy or care and, if the initial treatment protocol fails, then reassess treatment options or seek veterinary advice. Euthanize (or cull*) without delay cattle that:
• are unlikely to recover, or
• fail to respond to treatment and convalescent protocols, or
• have chronic, severe, or debilitating pain and distress, or
• are unable to get to or consume feed and water, or
• show continuous weight loss or emaciation.

What would we do with sick cattle that are treated with antibiotics if we move to a market where we do allow treated animals to be used for food production? To be clear, I am referring to cattle that were sick, treated, have recovered fully and are well past the withdrawal time for the prescribed medication when they are harvested for beef. I believe that it would be a huge disservice to the industry to exclude these animals from beef production. Disease happens, especially in times of harsh weather. Like this spring when we still had snow April 28:
Late spring snow storm.

Baby calves in late spring storms are a high risk for getting sick. In a world of antibiotic free beef, these calves would either 1. Excluded from the beef production cycle at a high cost to the producer and consumer if they are treated or 2. Left untreated would suffer more than necessary and possibly die. Neither option sounds like a great idea to me. So while I 100% support using the best management tools available to prevent disease and need to use antibiotics, I am very aware of how tough it is for cattle to resist disease in the face of stress like storms, dusk, handling etc. I am hoping we can reach a point one day again where the farmer is trusted and seen as a steward of animals using the best tools to care for their animals and land – even if the mean using products like antibiotics and other materials that are supported by sound science.

One thought on “A tale of respiratory disease

  1. I have thought this since I first heard of “antibiotic free” anything. I raise Holstein steers and we get respiratory disease often. I can’t let my animals lay there while they are sick. To me, this is animal cruelty like no other. Furthermore, there is a reason why we, as humans, have to take a pill everyday for 10 days when we are on an antibiotic. The medicine doesn’t stay in our system and it doesn’t stay in livestock either. I feel perfectly comfortable giving my family meat that was treated with antibiotics as long we have gone through the appropriate withdraw period. We, as caretakers of animals, need to give them the best life possible while they are with us and this means treating them when they get sick so they can get better.

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