Keep Show Livestock Healthy

Use these tips to keep your show animals healthy and safe before, during and after competition.

by Dani Yokhna
Show sheep
When you take your livestock to show, inspect their cages for potential hazards and be aware of sick animals in the area.

Whether you or your kids show open classes, 4-H or FFA, you’ll never forget the thrill of watching your doe-eyed dairy cow, immaculate white ewe or flashy, feathered chicken win that first beautiful blue ribbon. Unfortunately, you’ll also never forget the disappointment if your prize-winning dreams are dashed because the cow sustained a trailer injury, the ewe came down with pneumonia at the show or the chicken returned home to infect your flock with avian influenza.           

To help keep your dream livestock show from becoming a nightmare, Dr. Christine B. Navarre, DVM, an extension veterinarian at Louisiana State University and president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, offers these practical tips for keeping your exhibition animals (and menagerie back home) healthy and safe.

1. Think prevention—but not over-prevention. 
With livestock from many different farms commingling in the same buildings at shows, your animals are at increased risk of contracting infectious diseases the moment they step onto the show grounds. 

“Always get your own vet involved with making sure your animals are well-vaccinated, especially for respiratory diseases like pneumonia, before you show,” stresses Dr. Navarre.

She adds that exhibitors should be prepared to adhere to two sets of health rules when showing livestock: those prescribed by the state and those required by the fairground or other show venue.  One over-protective prevention strategy to avoid: blanket-coverage antibiotics. 

“People will give their animals antibiotics before the show, thinking it will protect them from disease, but that’s bad for food safety and will just add to the animal’s stress,” she says. Improper antibiotic use may also contribute to antibiotic resistance in livestock.    

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2. Avoid sudden livestock diet changes right before, during or after the show. 
Drastic livestock diet alterations can lead to digestive upsets, increased stress (which can lower immunity), and—in horses—a deadly colic episode.

 “You want to do everything you can to maintain a consistent diet,” says Dr. Navarre.  “[That means] the same feed, the same amount and fed at the same time.”

3. Beware of over-conditioning your livestock. 
Of course, you want your show animal to look its best for the judges, but over-conditioning to speed growth, boost milk output or pack on weight can cause serious, long-term health problems, cautions Dr. Navarre. For example: “Overly heavy sheep and goats can experience pregnancy toxemia, and over-conditioned heifers can have calving difficulties and poor milk production later in life.”  

4. Transport show livestock with knowledge and care. 
Particularly with larger livestock, getting to and from the show can result in animal or human injuries—or serious traffic accidents—if done improperly or with badly maintained/poorly inspected equipment (i.e. trailer and haul vehicle). Dr. Navarre highly recommends that exhibitors inexperienced with animal transport consult with someone knowledgeable about loading and transporting livestock before attempting it themselves. 

5. Reduce livestock’s travel stress. 
If your animals have never hit the road before, gradually getting them used to riding in a vehicle or trailer will go a long way toward making this noisy, motion-filled experience less frightening, says Dr. Navarre. Start by simply loading your animal, then wait a short while and unload it. Next, take short drives—say, to the grocery store and back—before gradually tackling longer trips. For flighty, shy animals, such as chickens and rabbits, darkening their cage or crate by covering it with a sheet or towel can also help reduce stress.

6. Be safe on arrival to the show. 
Before moving your animals into their designated show pens or cages, inspect the areas for potential hazards, such as sharp edges or broken latches.

“Make sure there isn’t something they shouldn’t eat within reach of the pen,” says Dr. Navarre.  “Especially with goats—if they can reach something, they’ll eat it!” 

Check on conditions within the building, as well. (i.e. Is the barn sweltering with no fan in sight?) If you notice problems, promptly bring them to the attention of show officials. Also, unloading (or loading) your animals ideally should be done in a secure area—inside a barn with the doors closed, for instance—so they don’t end up gallivanting around the grounds if they break loose.             

7. Feed your livestock a healthy diet and provide plenty of water. 
Animals excited or frightened by fair crowds can turn over their food and water, so try to provide containers that won’t tip or spill, and check them regularly. 

“Sometimes the taste of ‘new’ water will put them off, so if you consistently have trouble with your animals drinking, you might want to try bringing water from home,” says Dr. Navarre. “I advise against adding electrolytes unless your vet recommends it, and be careful with adding molasses [to encourage drinking], because too much of it can cause digestive problems.”

8. Watch for signs of livestock sickness.
Spend some time carefully observing your show animals each day, and if any display signs of sickness, such as not eating or drinking, lethargy, coughing or sneezing, persistent diarrhea, or fever, ask the show vet to take a look. Don’t feel shy about alerting fellow exhibitors and show staff about any other animals you see displaying signs of illness, too.

9. Protect your farm after the show. 
Biosecurity measures, such as disinfecting cages, trailers and other equipment, as well as quarantining your returning show animals, will help prevent disease outbreaks on your farm. 

“Any time you have animals commingling at a show, you can bring diseases home,” warns Dr. Navarre. “Even if your show animals appear healthy, they can still be shedding viruses, so you need to have a quarantine area or pasture set up where you can keep them separated from your other animals, with no nose-to-nose contact, for two weeks.” 

Once again, she emphasizes consulting with your own vet before you head to the show. 

“Biosecurity is very specific to the type of livestock, so you really need to ask your vet, ‘What can I do to protect my animals and farm?’”  

About the Author: Cherie Langlois is a freelance writer in Washington state who has shown her Jacob sheep in open class (and can vouch that winning a blue ribbon is a major thrill, even if your sheep promptly chews it up!).    

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