Photograph credit: http://www.sussexcountyva.gov/departments/animal-control/hunting-dogs
Firstly, what is bovine tuberculosis?
Bovine tuberculosis is caused by Mycobacterium bovis which is a slow-growing, aerobic bacterium. It is able to survive in the soil for up to a year and, despite its name suggesting otherwise, the bacterium can infect mammals other than cattle for example, deer, dogs, badgers, humans, cats and many more. However it dies present itself differently depending on the species and in cattle, is mainly a respiratory disease. Often it is found in the lymph glands of the throat and lungs and is passed out if the body in discharge of the nose and mouth, as well as in the breath of the infected animal.
How does it spread?
It is known that bTB (bovine tuberculosis) is transmitted between cattle, between badgers and also between the two species in what is know as a cycle of re infection. Animals become infected with bTB through inhalation or ingestion of the bacteria, which often happens though contaminated water and food. Between cattle, the disease is also transmitted via the placenta, to an unborn foetus and via infected milk. Badgers live in burrows (setts) underground with a group of badgers, and, as expected, close contact is unavoidable, hence bTB spreads quickly through the group. Close contact is also how the disease spreads between badgers and cattle, although it is not limited to this as an animal can also become infected after contact with sputum, faeces, urine, and also infected discharge from skin lesions or abscesses.
What is being done to control the disease?
Sadly, infected cattle are euthanised (nearly 40,000 last year) and there are many culls of badgers every year, regardless of whether or not the badger is infected with bTB. Farmers are also encouraged to keep infected cattle in isolation until they are euthanised so as to minimise spread of the disease and are also encouraged not to use slurry from other farms on their fields, just in case bTB was present there.
It is widespread opinion that badgers are responsible for large outbreaks or bTB and are believed to be the main spreader of the disease.
However, new investigations have found bovine tuberculosis in dogs, who are expected to have contracted the disease by eating infected meat. Infected livestock can still enter the food chain, as long as they do not have more than one lesion in more than one organ and feeding euthanised livestock to hunt kennels is a cheap way of dispose of carcasses.
Approximately fifty dogs are suspected to have been euthanised because of testing positive for bTB but a spokesman for the Master of Fox Hounds Association did not believe that there was a connection between bTB and fox hounds, despite being “aware of some new cases” of the disease.
Iain McGill has campaigned against badger culling and has said that he is “extremely concerned … that this disease is being carried by hunting hounds”. He also expressed concern that the government is ignoring significant evidence of this. Many wealthy Tory supporters are in favour of hunting with hounds, so this may play a role as to why the government are brushing off this new hypothesis.