|What’s in Your Barn?|
Farms with barns are a common occurrence. Hay is often stored in these barns and sometimes cats, possums, skunks and raccoons frequent these barns and set up house. The problem with this picture occurs when these "critters" use the hay as their bathroom then livestock ingest the contaminated hay. The feces with possible contaminants from cats, possums and raccoons have potential to contaminate not only hay, but grass, grain feed and water consumed by livestock. Sometimes these seemingly-innocent critters can be carriers of a microorganism or protozoa known as Toxoplasma gondii which causes toxoplasmosis, a common cause of infectious abortion among livestock and with the potential to infect humans. Toxoplasmosis is a disease causing abortions, weak kids, stillbirths, birth defects and mummification of fetuses in pregnant livestock.
Does this suggest these barn critters should be eradicated: not at all. However, if you find possums, skunks and raccoons, and they have set up house in a hay barn, you will need to come up with a plan to relocate or properly remove them. Animal traps for capturing small wildlife are readily available at most Quality Co-ops; you can catch the animals and relocate them to remote areas. There are service vendors who specialize in trapping and relocating small wildlife. In some situations, there may be municipal or county government services offering removal of nuisance animals. Termination of the critters may be a final option.
When it comes to cats, you need to understand more details about this disease to develop a strategy to deal with this potential issue. Cats are the carriers of this protozoan. Cats, especially kittens under 6-months-old, pass the oocytes in their feces when they eat infected rodents, raw meat or placentas of toxoplasmosis-infected animals. Once livestock ingest the contaminated food and water sources, they invade the body through the intestines, multiplies in the placenta of pregnant animals and is passed on to the fetus(es) with the potential to cause fetal death, fetal mummification, stillbirth or birth of weak kids that eventually expire. Abortions in livestock from this microorganism occur in the final stage of pregnancy.
Kittens under the age of 6 months are more likely to be carriers than adult cats. We all know adult cats are useful in controlling rodents in barns. There is no reason to rid your barn of adult cats. Prevention is the best solution to minimizing the opportunity for this situation to occur on your farm, simply implement the following practices. (1) Periodically clean out your barn, removing critter or cat feces and removing any critters. (2) Neuter/spay all cats at an appropriate age; do the same for any adult cats you may already have or acquire, especially feral cats. (3) Reduce or eliminate the rodent population with strategically-placed pet and livestock-safe containers or rodent bait. Do not rely on cats to suppress the rodent population; this affords potential contamination of felines.
This disease is zoonotic. Humans can also be affected by this microorganism when they ingest milk or meat from animals that are/were carriers of toxoplasmosis. Never risk exposure of toxoplasmosis to pregnant women. Use disposable gloves or handling equipment when in doubt. Burn or properly bury or dispose of critter feces, livestock placental material, dead fetuses and anything coming in contact with potential contaminants.
Diagnosis of livestock is relatively easy through lab tests of body fluids and mucus. Treatment of this disease is possible through lab tests, but by the time the culprit is suspect the loss of offspring has already occurred. Visit with your local veterinarian to learn more about your options. Cats can be tested to see if they are carriers. Do some research on the Internet.
Just because you have a barn, hay, livestock and critters or cats does not mean toxoplasmosis is a threat. More than likely, you have little to be concerned about unless you are seeing evidence of late-term abortions in livestock, stillborn or mummified livestock fetuses. Just follow the aforementioned preventative measures. Remove all small wildlife attempting to set up house in your barn. Only utilize adult cats; and spay or neuter all cats living on your farm, which is a good practice any time.
Robert Spencer is an Urban Regional Extension Specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.