Mad Cow Disease Information: Questions and Answers About Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)
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Sam Barringer, DVM
WVU Extension Service
Veterinary Science

Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or BSE, is the appropriate name of a fatal brain disease known to exist in beef and dairy cattle in the United Kingdom (the UK includes England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales). In the UK, the disease was given the inappropriate name "Mad Cow Disease," a label which has been perpetuated by the media worldwide. The cows infected with BSE are not "mad" and some researchers have said a more appropriate name might be "Sad Cow Disease" because the loss of muscular coordination and locomotive function caused by BSE is, indeed, a sad thing to observe.

Fortunately, we do not have BSE in the United States or Canada. Efforts are underway to fully understand why the disease became such a problem in the UK. This information will help ensure we never acquire BSE here. The following provides answers to a set of commonly asked questions regarding BSE. The responses are based on the review of the scientific literature and direct communication with scientists studying this problem.

- Beginning in 1989, APHIS banned the importation of live ruminants and ruminant products from countries where BSE is known to exist.

- Since 1991, there has been a voluntary ban in place on the use of rendered products from adult sheep in animal feeds.

- In 1986, APHIS established a program for BSE surveillance in the U.S. and provided specialized training for 250 APHIS veterinarians who conduct field investigations involving animals with any suspicious symptoms.

- APHIS veterinary pathologists and field investigators have received training from British counterparts for diagnosing BSE.

- More than 60 veterinary diagnostic laboratories throughout the United States are participating in the BSE Surveillance Program (initiated in May 1990) along with the National Veterinary Services Laboratories in Ames, IA.

- APHIS veterinarians are tracing 499 head of cattle imported from Great Britain between 1981 and 1989 (before the ban on imports went into effect) to check their health status. As of January 22, 1996, 116 imports are known to be alive; 341 are known to be dead; and eight imports have been exported. APHIS is trying to locate the remaining 34, but based on the age of the animals, they are assumed to be dead. The animals that are alive are monitored regularly, and no signs of BSE have been found.

- From 1986 to December 31, 1995, 2,660 brain specimens from cattle exhibiting possible neurological problems in 42 states had been studied by APHIS. All samples submitted have been negative.


"Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, Assessment and Management," Journal of Gerontological Nursing, November 1993, pp. 15-22.

"The Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies," Annual Review of Medicine, 1995, 46: pp. 57-65.

"Genetic Predisposition to Iatragenic Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease," 1991, Lancet, 337: pp. 1141-1142.

"Greutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Associated With PRNP Codon 200 LYS Mutation: An Analysis of 45 Families," European Journal of Epidemiology, 1991, Issue 7, pp. 477-86.

"The Prion Diseases," Scientific American, January 1995, pp. 48-57.

"Fact Sheet, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy," U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, February 1996.

BSE Experts

Dr. Will Hueston
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service,
Veterinary Service Unit 33, 4700 River RoadRiverdale,
MD 20737
Phone: 301/734-8093; Fax: 301/734-8818

Dr. Harley Moon
Center Director
Plum Island Animal Disease Center
USDA Agricultural Research Service
Box 848
Greenport, NY 11944
Phone: 516/323-2500, ext. 207; Fax: 516/323-2507