If you’ve been watching the news over the last year or so, you’ll have heard that cows can catch Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) from badgers. But can we? The short answer is yes. But it’s a little more complicated than that, as are the reasons for badger culls in the UK.
How is Bovine Tuberculosis spread between animals?
Badgers have been known to carry Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) for years. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, nobody is sure which animal caught the disease first. Do badgers catch bTB from cows, or do cows catch bTB from badgers?
Many animals can carry bTB, in 2014 two people caught bTB from cats. In some parts of the UK, wild deer are thought to be the main transmitters of bTB to cattle. But because the disease is spread by physical contact with exhaled air, sputum, urine, faeces and pus – animals are more likely to catch the illness from a badger than you are.
How do humans catch Bovine Tuberculosis?
Before milk was pasteurized it wasn’t unusual to pick up bTB from milk. Even now, in countries where milk is not pasteurized before drinking this is still a common way that humans can become infected. But as the milk you buy in shops today is pasteurized, you’re highly unlikely to catch it from milk in this country. Cows are regularly checked for bTB, and any that have the disease are culled immediately.
What are my chances of catching Bovine Tuberculosis from a badger?
No one knows how many badgers there are in the UK. DEFRA estimates there are 64,000 setts (a sett is a badger burrow), which is approximately one badger for every 1,000 people. However, your chances of coming into contact with a badger are quite slim, as they’re nocturnal and very secretive. They don’t tend to live in town and city centres.
Even in the countryside you’re more likely to see one dead on the side of the road, during the day, than alive in a field at night (when they’re most active). And the most important fact, perhaps, is that not every badger has bTB – DEFRA estimates that only around 15% of badgers are infected. So: the reality is that we’re highly unlikely to catch bTB from a badger.
Are there any diseases I should worry about?
There are some more common diseases that are carried by wild animals, which are unlikely to hurt you but could seriously harm your pets. If you have pet rabbits, then they could catch myxomatosis from wild rabbits. Foxes can carry diseases that are infectious to dogs, cats and ferrets – especially in urban areas where close contact with foxes is more likely.
It’s important to keep your pets vaccinated, and to put pet insurance in place in case they become ill. Myxomatosis is almost always fatal in unvaccinated rabbits; parvovirus is expensive to treat, and often fatal to unvaccinated dogs. If in doubt about your pets’ health, or illnesses that you or your family could contract from domestic pets, talk to your veterinary surgeon and ask for advice on suitable vaccinations.