Diseases suffered by animals living on land farms

Diseases suffered by animals living on land farms

The situation of nonhuman animals living on land farms makes them very susceptible to a number of diseases. In addition, the crowded conditions facilitate the spread of these diseases to the point they can become massive epidemics.

Furthermore, animals commonly suffer from a wide range of debilitating conditions, as the section on diseases in the wild explains. In the wild, this makes them more susceptible to being killed by other animals. Animals living in farms face the danger of being killed by humans for being sick or potentially sick, even sooner than they would have been killed if they had remained relatively healthy.

The following is a sampling of the major diseases mammals and birds raised in farms suffer. These diseases have not only caused great harm to the infected animals, but have also triggered mass slaughters of enormous numbers of animals in order for humans to avoid economic losses from their spread.

Avian influenza

After sea animals, the animals who are exploited by humans in the highest numbers are chickens. Avian influenza has resulted in international pandemics affecting birds and other animals, including humans. Avian influenza, also called avian flu or bird flu, is a highly infectious disease caused by a flu virus. It is transmitted between birds and occasionally to other animals, including humans. It causes high levels of mortality among birds, who, after an incubation process of a couple of days, may die in a matter of three to five days. In humans, symptoms can be confused with those of a normal flu, although the most severe cases can cause respiratory problems and pneumonia.

There have been epidemics caused by different strains of this virus. The most feared is the H5N1 strain, which has been considered the most dangerous for human populations. Due to the fear of transmission of this disease to human beings, and in order to avoid financial cost to the poultry industry, massive bird killings have been carried out in several countries.

During the 2000s, millions of healthy birds were exterminated due to their potential for transmitting avian flu. Between 2003 and 2006 alone, more than 200 million chickens, geese and ducks were killed in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East.1 Among other cases, the following deserve to be mentioned:

  • In April 2004, 19 million of birds were killed because of an outbreak of avian flu in British Columbia, Canada.2
  • In 2007, 159,000 turkeys at a bird farm in Suffolk, England were killed, and another 160,000 animals at a farm in the south of Germany were killed as well.3
  • In January 2011, after five cases of chickens with bird flu were identified in Japan, 400,000 chickens were killed.
  • In April 2011, a bird flu outbreak in the southwest of South Africa was discovered. At least 10,000 ostriches were killed as a preventive measure.

The most common methods of killing animals vary significantly depending on the country and the number of animals to be killed. Animals may be gassed, electrocuted, beaten and clubbed, burned alive (commonly by throwing them into large fires), buried alive (in plastic bags or under a layer of fire-fighting foam), or ground up alive in macerating machines or in wood chipping machines (in which they are thrown alive and fully conscious into machines designed for turning wood into chippings).4

All of these animals, whether they are actually sick, suspected of being sick, or susceptible to sickness, are considered by the industry to be hazardous waste. As such, it is deemed necessary to kill and dispose of them as soon as possible. Due to this, and also because the number of animals is typically substantial, the workers in charge of killing them will usually work as fast as possible and kill them by using the least expensive method, without taking into account the suffering they cause to animals. Nonhuman animals raised for food are considered commodities, and when these commodities stop being profitable to those who exploit them, they are often exterminated without their wellbeing being taken into account.

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy is a degenerative disease of bovine nervous systems that is caused by the presence of infectious proteins (prions). It mostly affects cows but can also be transmitted to human beings. It was first discovered in the UK in November 1986. The incubation period of this disease is a rather long one (about 4-5 years on average, but possibly much longer). This disease causes the progressive degeneration of the nervous system, with sufferers displaying, among other symptoms, a clumsy coordination of their movements. Eventually individuals who are infected with it die from it.5

Until 1994, 146,895 cases of animals with BSE were detected in the European Union, and from 1995 to 2007, 189,875 more cases were detected.

Several possible causes for the diseases were initially considered. The one most accepted by the scientific community is that it was caused by the consumption of food made out of powdered meat and bones of animals killed in various circumstances, including some who had been suffering from degenerative nerve diseases (for instance, sheeps with scrapie).

The eradication of the disease requires the elimination of animal proteins from the food given to herbivores. From December 2000 to June 2001, out of fear of an epidemic, the European Union temporarily banned the feeding of processed animal proteins to any animal destined to be killed for human consumption. This included a ban on powdered flesh, bones, hooves, horns, feathers, and any foodstuff made with products coming from blood and plasma, with some exceptions such as fish flour (powdered fishes) being fed to non-ruminant animals.

Another approved measure was that any animal either infected or suspected of being infected should be killed and their body incinerated immediately.

As a precautionary measure, in many farms all of the animals were killed, even if there was only one sick animal or there was just a mere suspicion that one of them was suffering from the disease. In Great Britain alone, 4.4 million bovine animals were killed for this reason during the peak of the so-called “mad cow disease” outbreak.6

Foot and mouth disease

Foot and mouth disease is a very contagious condition caused by a virus that affects pigs, cows, sheeps and goats. It does not usually affect humans except in some extraordinary cases where those infected have been in very close contact with the virus.

It causes high fever during the first two or three days, after which very painful blisters appear both in the mouth mucoses and in the feet of the animals. It causes many sufferers to experience a loss of appetite that can consequently cause them to lose weight and produce less milk. In most cases, this disease is not lethal and there are vaccines to protect against it.

During the last few years, several foot and mouth disease outbreaks have occurred, which have resulted in the deaths of millions of animals. The large number of deaths has occurred not because of the deadliness of the disease, but rather because of the precautionary measures implemented in different countries, which have included killing healthy animals. The reason for many of those deaths was not to prevent other animals from dying from the disease, but to stop the reduced productivity of the animals who could get infected. A few noteworthy cases are listed below.

  • In 1997, a foot and mouth disease outbreak occurred in Taiwan, resulting in more than 200,000 pigs being killed every day during the outbreak, most of whom electrocuted. In total, almost 4 million pigs were killed, and their bodies were burned or buried.7
  • In 2001, a foot and mouth epidemic occurred in the UK. 2,000 infected animals were detected, and as a preventative measure, between 6.5 and 10 million animals were killed.8
  • On February 28, 2001, France announced their intention to kill 30,000 sheeps who might have been in contact with animals coming from Great Britain. Eventually the total number of animals who were killed that year in France rose to 50,000.9
  • In November 2010, an outbreak of this disease was discovered in South Korea. In January 2011, the mass killing of 1.4 million pigs began. The South Korean government decided to use the simplest and cheapest method of killing them. Consequently, the pigs suffered torturous deaths by being buried alive and fully conscious, ultimately dying from suffocation or being crushed under the weight of the bodies of those who were dropped on top of them in their mass graves.

In addition, more than 100,000 cows and bulls were slaughtered due to the same issue in Korea and Japan.10

Other diseases

Another disease that has affected significant numbers of animals, therefore causing them to be slaughtered, is Swine Vesicular Disease (SVD). This disease is caused by the Swine Vesicular Disease Virus and can cause those infected to suffer painful ulcers in several parts of their bodies, including in their mouths and on their feet.11

Other diseases animals regularly suffer from if they are living in farm situations include the following:

Acariasis Avian Mycoplasmosis Blue Eye Disease
Bluetongue Botulism Bovine Tuberculosis
Bovine Viral Diarrhoea Brucellosis Campylobacteriosis
Cryptococcosis Dermatophytosis Epizootic Hematopoietic Necrosis
Epizootic Lymphangitis Hemorrhagic Septicemia Leptospirosis
Mastitis Mycobacteriosis Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea
Porcine Reproductive Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) Salmonella Screwworm Myiasis Sheep and Goat Pox
Smallpox Toxoplasmosis Vesicular Stomatitis
Viral Hemorrhagic Fever (caused by Arenavirus and by Filovirus) Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia West Nile Virus


Further readings

AVIS (2001) “OIE disease cards”, AVIS, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations [accessed on 25 March 2020].

Bengis, R. G.; Kock, R. A. & Fischer, J. (2002) “Infectious animal diseases: The wildlife/livestock interface”, Revue Scientifique et Technique, 21, pp. 53-65.

Committee on Foreign Animal Diseases of the United States Animal Health Association (2008) Foreign animal diseases: The gray book, 7th ed., St. Joseph: United States Animal Health Association.

Craig, R. A. (1919) Common diseases of farm animals, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.

Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (2017) “Animal production and health”, Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department [accessed on 23 March 2020].

Martinez-Salas, E.; Saiz, M. & Sobrino, F. (2008) “Foot-and-mouth disease virus”, in Mettenleiter, T. C. & Sobrino, F. (eds.) Animal viruses: Molecular biology, Norfolk: Caister Academic Press, pp. 1-38.

Miller, L. & Hurley, K. (2009) Infectious disease management in animal shelters, Ames: Wiley-Blackwell.

Rezac, D. J.; Thomson, D. U.; Siemens, M. G.; Prouty, F. L.; Reinhardt, C. D. & Bartle, S. J. (2014) “A survey of gross pathologic conditions in cull cows at slaughter in the Great Lakes region of the United States”, Journal of Dairy Science, 97, pp. 4227-4235.

Spickler, A. R. (2020) “Animal disease information”, The Center for Food Security and Public Health [accessed on 20 March 2020].

Tully, D. C. & Fares, M. A. (2008) “The tale of a modern animal plague: Tracing the evolutionary history and determining the time-scale for foot and mouth disease virus”, Virology, 382, pp. 250-256.


1 Serjeant, J. (2006) “Amid bird flu, activists plead for humane culling”, Daily News, 5 June [accessed on 7 April 2013].

2 Tweed, S. A.; Skowronski, D. M.; David, S. T.; Larder, A.; Petric, M.; Lees, M.; Li, Y.; Katz, J.; Krajden, M.; Tellier, R.; Halpert, C.; Hirst, M.; Astell, C.; Lawrence, D. & Mak, A. (2004) “Human illness from avian influenza H7N3, British Columbia”, Emerging Infectious Diseases, 10, pp. 2196-2199 [accessed on 30 March 2013].

3 BBC News (2008) “Timeline: Bird flu in the UK”, BBC, 10 January [accessed on 5 April 2013].

4 Tenpenny, S. J. (2006) Fowl! Bird flu: It’s not what you think, Kampala: NMA Media Press.

5 Seuberlich, T. (2014) “Overview of bovine spongiform encephalopathy”, MERCK Manual: Veterinary Manual, Mar [accessed on 29 March 2020]; Spickler, A. R. (2016) “Bovine spongiform encephalopathy”, The Center for Food Security and Public Health [accessed on 22 March 2013]. World Health Organization (2013) “Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)”, Zoonoses, World Health Organization [accessed on 29 March 2013].

6 Brown, D. (2000) “The ‘recipe for disaster’ that killed 80 and left a £5bn bill”, The Telegraph, 27 October [accessed on 2 April 2013]. Segarra, A. E. & Rawson, J. M. (2001) “Mad cow disease: Agriculture issues”, Foreign Press Centers, March 12 [accessed on 27 March 2020].

7 U. S. Department of Agriculture (1997) “Foot-and-mouth disease spreads chaos in pork markets”, FASonline, Livestock and Poultry: World Markets and Trade Circular Archives, October.

8 BBC News (2007) “Farm infected with foot-and-mouth”, BBC, 4 August [accessed on 2 April 2013].

9 Wong, C. M. (2011) “South Korea reportedly buries 1.4 million pigs alive to combat foot and mouth disease”, The Huffington Post, 25 May [accessed on 5 April 2013].

10 UN News Centre (2010) “UN agency warns of increased foot-and-mouth threats after outbreaks in Asia”, UN News Centre, 28 April [accessed on 27 March 2013]. Muroga, N.; Hayama, Y.; Yamamoto, T.; Kurogi, A.; Tsuda, T. & Tsutsui, T. (2012) “The 2010 foot-and-mouth disease epidemic in Japan”, Journal of Veterinary Medical Science, 74, pp. 399-404 [accessed on 30 March 2020].

11 Morilla, A.; Yoon, K.-J. & Zimmerman, J. J. (2002) Trends in emerging viral infections of swine, Ames: Iowa State Press.