Fatal Disease Infecting Oregon Sheep

scrapieThree hundred sheep have been euthanized in Oregon because of a disease that makes even the toughest sheep ranchers shake in their boots. It’s called scrapie, and it’s the black plague of the sheep world. Scrapie is a fatal degenerative disease that affects the nervous system in sheep as well as goats. It is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy, which is related to mad cow disease seen in cattle and chronic wasting disease, which is seen in deer and elk. It is called scrapie because most animals that have the disease begin to show symptoms by scratching themselves on objects in their pasture such as trees, rocks, and fence posts. Other signs include lip smacking, altered gait, and convulsive collapse.

Currently there is no evidence that says it is transmissible to humans or even harmful, but because it is so similar to other forms of wasting diseases, the USDA takes it very seriously. The sheep in Douglas County have been euthanized because one of the flock tested positive for scrapie during routine testing at a processing plant. This is the third sheep that has tested positive for the disease since 2005. The second appeared in 2008. The affected flock is euthanized because scrapie is transmitted during lambing season, and it is important to stop the disease in its tracks.

Scrapie is passed from ewe to lamb at birth, or to any other sheep if they come into contact with an infected placenta. Euthanasia is the only way to ensure that none of the meat enters the food chain and to make sure that the disease does not spread to any more animals. The Department of Agriculture is looking into the case in Douglas County, and is taking steps to control the disease with money that is allocated for a specific federal program.

Ranchers have to label all of the breeding animals and animals destined for processing in their flock with special scrapie ID cards so that the disease, when it appears, can be traced back to the farm where it originated. This allows for the decimation of the disease in a specific flock before it is able to spread to other flocks. The rancher is compensated for the loss of his animals, so that he or she will be able to restart a new flock. Scrapie is a rancher’s worst nightmare, but the Department of Agriculture and the USDA are working around the clock to eradicate it before it is able to establish a foothold in the “tough enough already” ranching world.

by Kyra Young