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COVID-19 and cattle vets

01 May 2020, at 8:10am

How is the current global pandemic affecting the work of cattle vets in the UK?

At the time of writing, it is week two of the restrictions for cattle vets visiting farms. The prime minister has spent a second night on oxygen in intensive care, the initial three-week clampdown is expected to be extended and the modellers are indicating that the peak disease incidence is nearly upon us. Whether the peak will continue as a flat line on the chart or fall away rapidly is a topic for debate. By the time you read this, some of the outcomes will be known. The observations of veterinary surgeons may become very important, not only when there is analysis of development of the disease but possibly more rapidly as consideration is given to lifting restrictive practice.

The British Cattle Veterinary Association has issued members with a range of information that will enable them to manage the disease restrictions. Before visiting a farm, the vet is to contact the farmer to establish that safe working is able to be implemented. In order to appreciate the initial impact on farmers, vets and veterinary practices, I spoke with Nikki Hopkins, BCVA President, after the first few days of the new order.

Clearly each practice and area will be different and Nicki has a particular interest in beef herds and bulls. Many of her clients are in the older at-risk age range and they are not engaged with social media. Mobile phone coverage is patchy but swiping away at a small screen has just not become the norm. Nikki points out that a veterinary surgeon making contact, asking about the health of people at the farm and indicating that in order to visit precautions are needed for all to stay safe, results in a serious conversation about the virus.

Whereas many people will now be familiar with the idea of a viral aura and the low number of virus particles that cause infection, the severe inflammation inside the lungs and the immune system being overwhelmed, it appears that clients are not always well informed and have welcomed the vet as educator. At the farm visit, Nikki comments that asking the farmer and stockmen to wear gloves has emphasised the need for real precautions. Fortunately, the length of a cow matches the requirements for social distancing. It is unlikely that the distance for viral projection was indicated to accommodate a veterinary surgeon at the blunt end of a cow and the farmer at the sharp end, but six feet and two metres does conveniently cover the dairy and beef breeds.

Nikki is part of the Hafren Veterinary Group. Many of the clients have been with the practice for years, if not generations, and it is helpful that the living arrangements and handling facilities on the farms are well known to the staff. This is particularly relevant when arranging a TB test. The rule is coronavirus safety first, TB second. It is understood that TB testers in other areas, who are not familiar with the farm, may have greater difficulty in establishing safe working. The BCVA office is in discussion with APHA to help overcome any obstacles. Currently, the vets within the practice are working four-day weeks and operating an out-of-hours rota. There are expected to be financial impacts on the practice and it is considered too early to make any predictions.

The clients phoning the practice and collecting prescriptions from a box outside has not caused any difficulties and drug supply has not been interrupted. The principle is for clients not to enter the practice premises. Other practices are known to be operating a system where the farmer discusses the drug use with the vet, the order is placed and arrangements are made for collection. When the client enters the practice car park, a telephone call is made to someone within and the drugs are taken out, social distance maintained.

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Interestingly, the area managers for the pharmaceutical companies are finding that contact with practices is being maintained while working from home. Recognising that many practices are receiving a high call volume from clients, utilising e-mails and receiving calls from individuals is providing an efficient way of working. The whole area of multiple discussions about topics, with several people contributing, is being looked at as a way forward for contact between companies and practices, and between practices and clients. Veterinary practices that are already utilising advanced web connectivity may well be contributing to wider usage and telemedicine is likely to be one of the beneficial post-COVID developments.


Guidelines to cattle vets are that they are entitled to visit animals in need of emergency treatment or urgent assessment, and to prevent further deterioration. Routine treatments are permitted in order to maintain a future food supply. An example given is that routine fertility visits can be deemed essential but that castrates and disbuds are not as they have no direct impact on production in the short term. It seems that the guidelines have been drawn up with a three-week application period and then a review. If cattle vets consider that a longer period of restriction is going to unduly curtail food production, then it would be advisable to let BCVA know your view. The Board will be considering the impact of COVID-19 moving forward and observations from the front line are important. Routine hoof trimming is not permitted. This may be one of the areas that could have a detrimental effect on production if hoof health maintenance is delayed.

Of particular consideration is the TB situation. It was at this same time of year in 2001 when herds were being slaughtered for foot and mouth disease. The general election was postponed and the countryside was in turmoil. When the dust settled there was an increase in bovine TB and the lack of testing in 2001 was indicated as a relevant factor. This interpretation will be a consideration for the continuation of TB testing now. Veterinary surgeons that were involved during FMD may have a view whether the lack of testing did contribute to an increase in disease in their area or whether the slaughter, restocking and general disturbance to farming activity was too great to be sure. If COVID-19 is a rural disease then TB testing may need to be suspended.

Veterinary practices are in an important position to be able to clarify the extent of COVID-19 on farms. When the final assessment is written the BCVA may well be asked to contribute, but information from practices would be very valuable now. Are there cases of COVID-19 on the farms of your clients? The extent of the disease on farms could well influence the duration of the rural restrictions. Looking over the hedge, it would appear that farming activity is proceeding as expected. Engineers are visiting to maintain tractors and other machinery, activity is taking place in the fields and milk is being collected.