BSE: how to spot and report the disease

How to spot BSE, what to do if you suspect it, measures you must take to prevent it and when you must have cattle tested.

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), known as mad cow disease, is a fatal brain disease that affects cattle.

BSE 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. This applies to pet and small holder animals as well as commercial cattle.

How to spot BSE

Affected cattle do not usually show signs of BSE until they’re at least 4 or 5 years old.

Cattle with BSE may slowly develop some of the following signs over a period of weeks or months:

  • change in behaviour
  • apprehension or nervousness (flighty)
  • repeated, exaggerated reactions to touch or sound
  • weakness or high stepping of the legs, particularly the hind legs
  • reluctance to cross concrete or drains, turn corners or enter yards or go through doorways
  • aggression towards humans or towards other cattle
  • manic kicking during milking or reluctance to allow milking
  • head held low
  • difficulty in rising, progressing to recumbency
  • tremors under the skin
  • loss of body condition, weight or milk yield
  • excessive nose licking

Feeding animals

There’s a ban on feeding any animal protein to ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats) and on feeding processed animal protein to all farmed animals, although there are exceptions.

Read the guidance on TSE regulations and feed controls.

Read guidance on how to feed milk or milk products to animals on your farm, and guidance on how to use leftover milk or milk products as farm animal feed.

Disposing of Specific Risk Material

Specific Risk Materials (SRM) are body parts of cattle or sheep that may contain significant amounts of prion in infected animals. Prion is the protein that can causes BSE when eaten by cattle.

Different animal parts are considered SRM, depending on whether they’re from a sheep or a cow and the age of the animal. All body parts of cattle born in the UK before 1 August 1996 are SRM and are banned from entering the food chain.

See the guidance on disposing of ABPs and animal by-product categories.

Movement restrictions

You must apply for a movement licence to move any cattle born or reared in the UK before 1 August 1996.

This is to prevent any meat or other body parts from these animals entering the food chain. Milk from these animals can be sold for human consumption.

Testing cattle for BSE

Cattle slaughtered for human consumption

You must have cattle that were slaughtered for human consumption tested for BSE if they meet both of the following conditions:

  • they were born in Romania, Bulgaria or any non-EU country
  • they were older than 30 months and disease-free at the time of slaughter

Cattle sent for emergency slaughter or fallen stock

You must have cattle tested for BSE if they meet any of the following conditions:

  • they’ve been sent for emergency slaughter
  • they were found to be sick in an inspection after death
  • they’re fallen stock, ie their death was not due to being slaughtered for human consumption

This rule applies to cattle that are either:

  • older than 48 months, if born in EU member states except Romania and Bulgaria
  • older than 24 months if born in Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, or any non-EU country

You must send fallen cattle that require BSE testing to an approved BSE sampling site.

From 1 April 2019, the animal owner will be responsible for the cost of taking Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE) samples from fallen stock cattle. The government will continue to pay the cost of transporting and testing the sample.

What happens if you suspect BSE

If one of your animals is showing signs of BSE you must report it immediately by calling the Defra Rural Services Helpline on 03000 200 301.

An APHA vet will visit your farm and carry out a veterinary assessment on the animal as soon as possible.

If the APHA vet suspects your animal has BSE, they’ll issue a notice restricting the movement of the animal (movement restriction). They’ll either cull the animal on your premises or transport it to an APHA laboratory for slaughter depending on the animal’s condition.

They’ll put a herd restriction in place prohibiting the movement of cattle on and off your farm (whole herd restriction) and test your animal to find out if it has BSE.

Once cohort and offspring animals are identified, they’ll issue notices restricting the movements of these animals and the whole herd restrictions are lifted.

If BSE is suspected in a female cow, the APHA will trace any of its offspring that were born up to 2 years before or after the mother showed signs of the disease.

They’ll put movement restrictions in place and they’ll slaughter the offspring if BSE is confirmed in the mother.

Testing cohorts

Cohorts are cattle which were either:

  • born in the same herd as the BSE case, up to a year before or after its birth; or
  • reared with a BSE case at any time before both were up to a year old

APHA uses data from BCMS records to identify cohorts of cattle that have tested postive for BSE.

Cohorts of infected cattle must be culled and tested for disease because of the likelihood that they have received the same feed as the BSE case.

If your cattle are identified as cohorts and APHA intends to cull them, you can appeal if you have evidence that the animals were not exposed to the same feed as the animal confirmed to have BSE.

You will need to provide feed control records for the period when the BSE case and the cohorts were reared together to show that the cohorts did not at any time receive the same feed as the BSE case. This includes the purchase of raw materials for feed from the same source and common feed sources such as salt blocks.

You can also appeal to delay the cull of bulls continuously kept at a semen collection centre. In this case, the bull would not be culled until the end of its productive life.

If you want to appeal, you must write to the local APHA office dealing with the case within 21 days of receiving the notification of the decision to cull the cattle.


You’ll be paid compensation for any BSE suspect, offspring or cohort that has been culled to control BSE.

See the guidance on compensation.

Published 2 June 2015
Last updated 4 March 2019 + show all updates
  1. Added note about the cost of taking samples from fallen stock being the animal owner's responsibility from 1 April 2019.

  2. Contact details for reporting a notifiable disease updated

  3. First published.