Anthrax: how to spot and report the disease

How to spot anthrax, what to do if you suspect it and measures to prevent its spread.

Applies to England, Scotland and Wales

Anthrax affects mammals and some species of birds.

These include:

  • cattle
  • pigs
  • horses
  • sheep
  • humans

The previous outbreak in livestock in Great Britain was in 2015.

Anthrax is a notifiable animal disease. If you suspect it you must report it immediately by calling the Defra Rural Services Helpline on 03000 200 301. In Wales, contact 0300 303 8268. In Scotland, contact your local Field Services Office. Failure to do so is an offence.

How to spot anthrax

In cattle and sheep

Cattle and sheep can die quickly from anthrax, but their carcasses may show no obvious signs of the disease.

But the length of the illness varies and some animals may have signs of illness for several days before death.

In such cases the main clinical signs are:

  • high temperature, shivering or twitching
  • harsh dry cough
  • blood in dung or in nostrils
  • decrease or complete loss of milk
  • fits
  • bright staring eyes
  • colicky pains
  • dejection and loss of appetite

In pigs and horses

Anthrax can cause death in pigs and horses, though less quickly than in cattle and sheep.

The main clinical signs of anthrax in pigs and horses are:

  • hot painful swellings in the throat area
  • sudden colic pain in horses
  • loss of appetite in pigs

Risk to humans

Anthrax symptoms begin with a flu-like illness.

This is then followed by respiratory difficulties.

Direct contact with anthrax can cause raised boil-like lesions on the skin which develop a black centre. This skin infection normally responds to early treatment with antibiotics.

If you inhale anthrax spores, they can cause damage to the lungs, which is often fatal.

How anthrax is spread

Anthrax is spread when its spores are inhaled, ingested, or come into contact with skin lesions.

The spores can survive for decades or even centuries.

They are found on infected animal carcasses, wool, hair and hides.

Preventing and controlling anthrax

Preventing anthrax

Talk to your vet before moving or disposing of carcasses after a sudden or unexplained death.

You can also help to prevent anthrax by practising strict biosecurity on your premises.

If you suspect anthrax

If you suspect anthrax:

  • contact your local APHA office immediately and isolate the animal or carcass
  • do not move, skin or open the carcass of any suspect animal
  • disinfect blood or other fluids from any suspect animal, as soon as possible, with a Defra approved disinfectant
  • do not kill or bleed any sick animals
  • watch any animals that have been in contact with the suspect animal, and isolate them if they show signs of infection
  • pay particular attention to cows, as humans can be infected by drinking contaminated milk

If anthrax is confirmed

If anthrax is confirmed, there are legal powers to control the spread of the disease during an outbreak.

If you think your animals will be continually exposed to anthrax, for example, after an outbreak, talk to your vet about using an antibiotic or a vaccine.

Your local authority will pay for the disposal of any diseased carcasses.

Further information on prevention and control

Controls to prevent disease

What happens when a notifiable disease is suspected or confirmed

Legislation relating to anthrax

The main domestic legislation on anthrax is The Anthrax Order of 1991.

Published 26 August 2014
Last updated 18 October 2018 + show all updates
  1. Contact details to report a notifiable disease updated.

  2. Updated information relating to the case in Wiltshire.

  3. Updated following an isolated case in a cow in Wiltshire in October 2015.

  4. AHVLA documents have been re-assigned to the new Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).

  5. AHVLA documents have been re-assigned to the new Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA).

  6. First published.