Bovine TB: how to spot and report the disease

How to spot bovine tuberculosis (bovine TB), what to do if you suspect it and measures to prevent its spread.

Applies to England, Scotland and Wales

Bovine TB is caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium bovis, (M. bovis) which is closely related to the bacterium that causes human and avian tuberculosis.

All mammalian species, including humans, are susceptible to bovine TB.

It is mainly a respiratory disease. Transmission can occur through nose to nose contact and also through contact with saliva, urine, faeces and milk.

Cattle can become infected when directly exposed to infectious cattle (or other infectious animals) and their excretions. The movement of cattle with undetected infection is the most likely way that disease spreads to new areas.

Bovine TB 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.

Current situation

The disease is currently present in England and Wales. Scotland achieved Officially Tuberculosis Free (OTF) status in September 2009.

How to spot bovine TB

It is hard to spot bovine TB as the signs are similar to other diseases and normally only develop in advanced stages of infection.

The disease is normally picked up in the compulsory cattle testing programme before clinical signs develop. Occasionally it is also detected during inspections of slaughtered cattle.

But you should look out for cattle that:

  • keep getting thinner
  • have a light fever that keeps coming back
  • are weak and have a reduced appetite

Some infected cattle will also have:

  • swollen lymph nodes, for example in the neck
  • a moist cough that gets worse in the morning and during cold weather or exercise
  • chronic mastitis (an infection of the udder that is not cured by the conventional antibiotic therapy)

Risk to humans

Humans can catch bovine TB through:

  • unpasteurised milk or dairy products from an infected cow, buffalo, goat or sheep
  • inhaling bacteria breathed out by infected animals
  • inhaling bacteria released from the carcasses of infected animals or from their excretions (such as faeces)

Infection is more likely if an unprotected wound is exposed to bacteria from an infected animal.

But the risk of infection is very low for the vast majority of the population.

Symptoms are similar to human TB, including weight loss, fever, night sweats and a persistent cough. If you develop these symptoms consult a doctor. The disease can be treated by a complex combination of drugs over a long period.

More information on TB in humans.

How to reduce the risk of infection

To avoid infection:

  • isolate suspect animals and their carcasses
  • do not get too close to the heads of infected animals or hold them
  • avoid unpasteurised milk from suspect animals
  • wash your hands regularly, especially before eating and smoking
  • don’t eat, drink or smoke in animal areas

How bovine TB is spread

Bovine TB is mainly spread into new herds through the movement of infected cattle that have not been detected.

In the west of England and parts of Wales the disease is also spread from infected badgers to other animals, including cattle, and vice versa.

Infected animals spread the disease mainly through coughing and sneezing. Bacteria are released into the air and inhaled by other animals in close contact.

The disease can also be spread:

  • from infected cows to their offspring during suckling and, much more rarely, in the womb
  • through contaminated equipment, animal waste, feed and pasture

Preventing and controlling bovine TB

Preventing bovine TB

There are a range of controls in place to reduce the spread of bovine TB. These controls form the basis of the strategy for achieving bovine TB free status for England.

You should also practise strict biosecurity on your premises.

A series of videos about farm biosecurity is also available which shows practical measures to reduce the risk of TB from wildlife.

If you suspect bovine TB

You must:

  • report it immediately by calling the Defra Rural Services Helpline on 03000 200 301
  • isolate suspected animals
  • not allow animals, equipment, carcasses or animal milk to leave your farm

An APHA vet will inspect your herd. If they can not rule out bovine TB, they will carry out tests.

If bovine TB is confirmed

If your animals are infected, restrictions will be imposed. Certain movements on and off restricted premises may be allowed, but only under licence from APHA.

Some of your cattle may have to be killed, but you will be compensated.

Further information on prevention and control

What happens when a notifiable disease is suspected or confirmed

Pre-movement and post-movement testing TB testing of cattle in Great Britain

Legislation relating to bovine TB

The main EU legislation on bovine TB is Directive 64/432/EEC.

The main domestic legislation is the Tuberculosis in Animals (England) Order 2021.

Updates to this page

Published 26 August 2014
Last updated 6 October 2021 + show all updates
  1. Updated the legislation section. Added a new link to the Tuberculosis in Animals (England) Order 2021.

  2. Contact details for reporting a notifiable disease updated.

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

  4. First published.

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