Catastrophic economic impact threatens Australia’s Livestock industries as the risk of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) increases with emergence and rapid spread of FDM in Indonesia

The strongest response in Australian history has been imposed by establishing biosecurity response zones at airports to stop the disease entering Australia’s shores.

This terrifying prospect would force animals to be slaughtered, cripple livestock industries as well as shut down export markets.

1. Why is foot, and mouth disease so serious?

Foot and mouth disease (FMD) is a serious and highly contagious viral disease that affects cloven-hoofed animals.  Cloven hoofed animals are those with divided hooves. This includes cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, deer and camelids for example camels, alpacas, and llamas. It does not affect horses or zebras.

This livestock infection can be fatal, causing fever followed by the development of blisters mainly on the mouth and on the feet and the disease can kill young animals.

Past overseas outbreaks have led to mass culling of infected animals in infected zones and non-infected animals in buffer zones, causing serious production losses.

FMD virus is carried by live animals and in dairy and meat products, as well as in soil, bones, untreated hides, vehicles, and equipment used with these animals. It can also be carried on people’s clothing and footwear and survive in frozen, chilled, and freeze-dried foods.

2. How do animals catch foot and mouth?

FMD is caused by a virus. The virus survives in living tissue and in the breath, saliva. Urine and other excretions such as discharge from blisters of infected animals. It can also survive in contaminated materials and the environment for several months in the right conditions

The virus can be transmitted in air particle between animals which are housed closely together. It also can be spread easily through contaminated water and feed.

The disease can be spread by the movement of contaminated trucks or lorries which have been used to transport infected animals in addition to infected material can be carried on vehicles ‘tyres and wheel arches.  Market places and loading ramps over which infected animals have travelled are also infectious zones.

This highly infectious virus can be transmitted not only by close contact, but also long-distance aerosol spread on equipment, soil, bones, hay, straw, fodder, and untreated hides. It can be carried on people’s clothing and footwear and survive in frozen, chilled, and freeze-dried foods of meat and dairy products. In the past outbreaks have been linked to infected meat or meat products or by an animal eating or encountering and infected carcass.

3. How can the Australian authorities deter an outbreak?

In response to the recent FMD outbreak in Indonesia frontline biosecurity officers have implemented strict flight protocols across all flights arriving from Indonesia including Bali. Biosecurity response zones has been set up at airports which is the strongest biosecurity response in Australian history.

Anyone returning to Australia after visiting a farm or being with livestock abroad must declare this upon their return so steps can be taken to stop the risk of transmission by contaminated clothing or dirty shoes.

The new rules require international travellers to comply with directions including to remove shoes and walk over sanitation mats

Enhanced targeted communication material profiling and inspecting passengers and mail are being actioned.

Post border responses includes a livestock tracing system and procedures to respond to an outbreak, depending on the size and how quickly it can be contained and eradicated.

Australia is well equipped to keep a disease like FMD at bay has invested heavily on implementing biosecurity measures to prevent high risk materials such as contaminated equipment on clothing, animals and animal products being brought in by travellers who may have been exposed to diseased animals.

Australia has a FMD vaccination bank internationally and vaccine is available for use when an incursion occurs in Australia.

4. How can Australian farmers prepare for an FMD outbreak?

Anyone working or keeping with cattle, sheep, pigs, or goats need to be aware of signs of FMD such as blisters on the mouth and drooling or limping animals. Livestock farmers must report the highly contagious disease immediately.

To protect their livestock and properties farmers must have prepared a good biosecurity practice on the farm.

  • Keep a record of all visitors and livestock movements
  • No-one who has been to any FMD infected areas within the last 7 days must not visit, handle, or feed livestock.
  • Limit entry points to the farm
  • Use clear display signs to direct visitors to specific areas
  • New stock should be inspected and isolated from other animals for 21 days will being monitored for symptoms of the disease
  • All footwear, clothing, and equipment of anyone visiting or working on their farm should be free from animal manure, mucus, and mud
  • Work wear clothes worn at sales or shows must be kept separate from the work clothes used solely on the livestock farm
  • Workers should ensure they disinfect their hands and shoes before and after handling animals
  • Any non-essential visits to other farms must be prevented unless necessary

Farmers can access free farm biosecurity advice and resources at

5. What are the signs of FDM in animals?

Symptoms of fever poor appetite, sore throat and runny nose can appear 3-5 days after exposure. The blisters or rash on the feet hands and mouth usually develop 1-2 days after the initial symptoms.

  • Sores or blisters, which are small sacs formed by the membrane filled with liquid, in the feet, mouth nostrils or teats
  • Slobbering and/or drooling saliva uncontrollably from the mouth
  • Lameness or reluctance to move
  • Lack of appetite
  • Severe depression
  • Raised temperature
  • Sudden death of young animals without
  • Reduced milk yield in dairy animals
  • Abortion in pigs 

In pigs the clinical signs are indistinguishable from swine vesicular disease. But it must still be reported and treated as suspected foot and mouth disease until laboratory tests prove otherwise.

6. Must other animas be monitored?

Among farm stock cattle, sheep, pigs, and goats are susceptible as too are llamas and alpacas. Wild cloven-hoofed animals, including deer can also be infected and introduce the disease to farm animals.

Other free roaming animals such as wildlife, cats, dogs, echidnas, wild game, and vermin can potentially spread the FMD virus from infected to vulnerable animals.

Pets should be kept in a kennel or securely tied to avoid contact with any livestock or feed areas. Owners of neighbouring houses and farms should also prevent their animals and pets from roaming.

7. What are the after-effects of FMD on the animals?

Animals lose condition and secondary bacterial infections may have lengthy convalescence periods.

In cattle it seriously reduces the affected animals’ ability to eat and roam, resulting in a loss in meat and milk production. While most affected animals do survive it may take them a long time to recover.  The disease often leaves them weakened and exhausted and not able to regain their full productivity. Surviving animals could also become carriers of the virus.

Serious effects of the disease are seen the most in dairy cattle. As well as the loss in milk production, chronic mastitis may develop and consequently the value of the cow is permanently reduced.  Animals can be left with sterility, abortion, and chronic lameness and in some cases chronic heart disease.  

Very young animals may die without showing any symptoms. A severe form of FMD may cause sudden death among older stock

8. Is foot-and-mouth disease transmissible to humans?

In theory FMD is a disease transmissible to humans but it crosses the species barrier with difficulty and with only a little effect. FMD is not transmitted to humans by eating affected meat.

FMD is not the same as Hand Foot and Mouth disease HFMD commonly seen in children.  The two diseases are caused by different organisms.  HFMD is highly contagious in both children and adults

HFMD is highly contagious and spreads through airborne droplets when the infected person coughs or sneezes It can spread by a person touching infected faeces/stools then touching the eyes, nose, or mouth.

There is no specific medical treatment as most people get better on their own. Symptoms can be relieved to prevent dehydration when sick. While children show symptoms, adults do not show any noticeable symptoms.

9. What are the consequences of an FMD outbreak?

Social impacts

  • Loss of income
  • Jobs at risk
  • Mental health issues for those who administer and witness stock culls
  • Reduced welfare
  • Reduced tourism
  • Pandemic style cycle of alarming news reports

Environmental impacts

  • Large number of carcasses to dispose of
  • Control methods used to eradicate FMD

Economic impacts

  • Meat prices would rise if large quantities of animals had to be destroyed
  • Supermarket meat shortages
  • Trade bans when exporting meat to certain areas around the globe
  • Lost trade, and to regain trade a country must wait 3-6 months after eradication

10. Has Australia ever had FMD before?

There have been minor outbreaks of possible FMD Australia in 1801, 1804, 1871, and 1872.  The 1892 outbreak was from packing straw. Since then, Australia has been free from FMD.

Globally there have been several outbreaks including Africa, Asia Middle East, and South America. Slightly different strains of the virus dominate in different parts of the globe

The last outbreak was in California in 1929. In the UK the last outbreak was in 2001 which resulted in the culling of more than 1 million animals costing the economy £8billion.

If an outbreak was to occur in Australia the size of the outbreak will depend on how quickly it is first detected, contained, and eradicated, including the administration of vaccine. Recovery time will be lengthened if there are many outbreaks, and they are not discovered until they are widely spread.