Do Cows Catch Colds? Respiratory Ailments in Livestock

Respiratory ailments similar to human colds, flu and pneumonia affect cattle, horses, pigs, sheep and goats. Here are symptoms as well as treatment and prevention strategies.

by Anna O'Brien
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Winter weather can be synonymous with cold season. How many people do you know who, in the past month, have had the sniffles, a cough, a sinus infection, bronchitis or influenza? Farm animals might not necessarily have a specific sniffles season but there are some common respiratory diseases you might encounter. Here are a few to keep in mind on the farm.


Influenza and rhinopneumonitis (usually referred to as “rhino”) are two common respiratory viral diseases in horses. Contagious and rife with complications, these diseases are fortunately easily prevented with a good vaccination program. Any horse in frequent contact with other horses should be up to date on these two vaccines.

Horses also commonly suffer from a condition the old-timers call “heaves” because in severe cases, the horse is literally heaving for air. Scientifically, heaves is called recurrent airway obstruction, or RAO, and is a sort of asthma-like condition where a horse becomes hypersensitive to an allergen in the environment—typically a mold or pollen—and chronically coughs because of inflammation in the airways. This is controlled by environmental management such as dust reduction and pasture boarding or, in severe cases, by steroids and bronchodilators.

Another dramatic respiratory disease in horses is called strangles. An extremely contagious bacterial infection, this disease classically presents as copious thick nasal discharge and massively swollen lymph nodes around the throat. In extreme cases, horses have trouble breathing because of the swollen lymph nodes, hence the name “strangles.” An outbreak of strangles is serious news for any barn. Although it typically doesn’t cause death, it can cause occasional errant infections in the brain and other places in the body and is a mess to manage. But, have no fear—this disease is easily preventable by vaccination as well.

Cattle and Swine

For cattle and swine, it seems all infectious causes of respiratory disease are conveniently lumped into a catch-all category that’s fairly easy to remember: BRD (bovine respiratory disease) or SRD (swine respiratory disease). For each species, a handful of infectious organisms, viral as well as bacterial, acting either independently or together, result in similar clinical signs, namely fever, weight loss, depression and inappetance. High fevers in excess of 104 degrees F are very indicative of this disease complex but, curiously, cough and nasal discharge are frequently absent.

Sometimes BRD is referred to as shipping fever, as it’s typically seen in young animals that are stressed, commingled with animals from other farms and moved, like when calves are weaned and then shipped to a stocker or feedlot. If you’re purchasing animals from an auction or sale barn, always be aware that these animals, stressed and often young, when settled into your place might break with contagious respiratory disease.

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Like with many of the contagious respiratory diseases in horses, there are vaccines to help prevent BRD and SRD. Another way to help prevent these diseases: If you’re shipping calves, wean and vaccinate a few weeks prior to shipping so they’re not experiencing compounded stressors on the day of shipment. Vaccines are also available for the various causes of SRD.

Sheep and Goats

Small ruminants don’t suffer from such a large array of respiratory pathogens like cattle and swine, but they have their own handful of causes of some pretty severe pneumonia. Typically two types of bacteria are to blame: Pasturella and Mycoplasma. Pasturella is such a common cause of pneumonia that it has its own name: pasteurellosis. Sheep and goats with this type of pneumonia are very sick animals and can quickly succumb to the disease, even if provided treatment in the form of IV fluids and antibiotics.

Again, like with many of these serious respiratory diseases in farm animals, the key is prevention, and there are vaccinations against these types of pneumonia in small ruminants.

Talk to your veterinarian if you’re concerned about these types of health threats to your herd; chances are that a solid vaccination program tailored to your herd’s needs will go a long way toward preventing some of these (non)seasonal sniffles.

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