Beef cattle and dairy cows: health regulations

Guidance on the main diseases that affect cattle, disease prevention and legal controls in place to protect cattle health.


As a cattle farmer, it’s essential that you take the necessary steps to protect the health of your animals. Maintaining good health is important to ensure acceptable standards of animal welfare, but such measures will also maximise the productivity of your herd.

Cattle diseases

Looking after your animals properly and monitoring them regularly for signs of illness are the best ways of preventing disease, and controlling its spread if there is an outbreak.

If you suspect signs of a notifiable disease, you must immediately notify the your local Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) office.

Cattle are vulnerable to many endemic and exotic diseases and some of these must be notified to APHA if suspected:

  • endemic diseases are diseases which commonly exist within Great Britain, eg common diseases such as bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD), infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) and Johne’s disease. They can be both notifiable and non-notifiable.
  • notifiable diseases can be endemic, such as tuberculosis. Some can be exotic which means they are not normally found in Great Britain, such as foot and mouth and bluetongue. Outbreaks of these diseases are subject to national control policies and international trade rules. They must be reported immediately to your local APHA office.

See the guidance on notifiable diseases in animals.

Disease prevention

Monitoring your livestock and following good farming practices are the best ways to reduce the risk of disease among your cattle.

Buying, registering, identifying and moving cattle

There are rules which you must follow for registering cattle, and when moving them. These procedures make it easier to trace and identify infected animals in the event of a disease outbreak.

When restocking your herd, you should:

  • consult your vet to help you develop a plan for evaluating prospective purchases
  • buy health scheme animals - whenever possible - that have been certified as free of specific diseases
  • recognise the risks in buying older animals

Biosecurity and hygiene

Good biosecurity is a vital part of keeping disease away from your animals. This will also protect the health of your workers and any members of the public who may visit your farm.

Your general biosecurity measures should include:

  • restricting and controlling movements of people, vehicles and equipment into areas where your cattle are kept
  • cleaning and disinfecting equipment, vehicles, protective clothing and footwear before and after contact with farm animals

The presence of a disease may not always be apparent, particularly in the early stages, so the measures above need to be part of your routine.

Health and welfare programmes

You should seek veterinary and technical advice to create a written health and welfare programme for your cattle. This should be reviewed and updated annually. As a minimum, it should include your:

  • vaccination policy and timing
  • parasite control procedures - internal and external

Drugs are useful for preventing disease in cattle, but you must use them responsibly and record all usage.

You can reduce the risk of disease and improve the performance of your livestock by using farm health planning techniques.

One good way to improve health planning is to benchmark your cattle’s health and business practices against other local farmers.

Veterinary surveillance

As part of its disease prevention strategy, Defra constantly collects information about incidences of disease in animals. This monitoring enables any important or unusual outbreaks to be detected quickly so that appropriate action can be taken.

See the cattle disease surveillance reports published by APHA.

Disposal of fallen stock

Fallen stock is any animal that has died of natural causes or disease on a farm or that has been killed on a farm for reasons other than for human consumption.

You are not permitted to bury or burn fallen stock on farm due to the risk of spreading disease through residues in the soil, groundwater or air pollution. This ban also covers animal by-products (ABPs) including afterbirth and stillborn animals.

BSE testing of fallen stock

Fallen stock must be tested for BSE if they are:

  • over 48 months of age
  • over 24 months and born outside of the UK and EU countries

Owners in the UK must contact a collector within 24 hours of their animal’s death, to arrange delivery to an approved sampling site within 72 hours of the animal’s death. If you are delivering the carcass yourself, you must contact an approved sampling site to agree this within 24 hours and you must deliver the carcass within 72 hours of the animal’s death.

Fallen cattle aged 48 months or under should be disposed of in accordance with ABP legislation.

Animal carcasses or parts of animal carcasses suspected or confirmed as infected by a TSE are category 1 ABPs. They must be disposed of by incineration, or processing (rendering) followed by incineration.

Prevention and control of BSE

To reduce the risk of TSEs, you must:

  • not feed animal protein or any feeds containing animal protein to cattle, sheep, goats, camelids, bison, buffalo, deer, antelope and wildebeest - except for milk, milk-based and colostrums, eggs and egg products, gelatine from non-ruminants, hydrolysed proteins derived from non-ruminants or from ruminant hides and skins, and liquid milk replacers for unweaned ruminants containing fishmeal, if registered by Defra
  • not use feed products containing prohibited proteins or mix prohibited proteins with feeding stuffs such as bonemeal or poultry meal
  • not use restricted proteins to produce feed for non-ruminants such as pigs and poultry - unless you have received authorisation from Defra
  • not use feed products containing restricted proteins on a farm where there are ruminant species present - unless you have received registration from Defra
  • notify the duty vet at your local APHA office immediately if you know or suspect that an animal or carcass in your possession - or under your charge - is infected with a TSE
  • fully comply with any movement restrictions
  • fully comply with any order to slaughter and destroy any animal
  • fully comply with any other notices served by an inspector

There are specific rules to prevent the spread of BSE and other TSEs through the use of animal by-products in animal feed.

See the guidance on TSE regulations and feed controls.

Prevention and control of bovine TB

Cattle with bTB are most often identified through testing using the tuberculin skin test before they develop clinical signs. This is because the disease usually progresses slowly and it can take some time for clinical signs to appear. Clinical signs of advanced bTB include:

  • weakness
  • emaciation
  • difficulty breathing
  • enlarged lymph nodes
  • coughing

You must notify your local APHA office immediately if you know or suspect that an animal or carcass in your possession, or under your charge, is infected with bTB.

All cattle herds in Great Britain, except some beef fattening units, are regularly tested for bTB.

The tuberculin skin test is the primary screening method for bTB in Great Britain. This test is used throughout the world to screen cattle, other animals and people for TB. Testing is carried out by government-approved testers and supervised by government-approved vets. Each test has three possible outcomes:

  • positive - the reactor animal is isolated from the rest of the herd and slaughtered
  • inconclusive - the animal is re-tested
  • negative

See the following guidance for further information on bovine TB and testing:

Cattle compensation

Government compensation is paid to owners of cattle compulsorily slaughtered for bTB control purposes. Compensation in England is determined primarily using table values, which reflect the average sales price of bovine animals in 47 different categories. The categories are based on the animal’s age, gender, type (dairy or beef) and status (pedigree or non-pedigree).

See the guidance on compensation for animals culled to control disease.


Vaccination of either cattle or wildlife is a potential long-term option for reducing the risk of bovine TB in Great Britain. However, vaccines can never represent a single answer to the problem of bovine TB. Vaccination is a risk reduction measure, most likely to be successful in controlling bovine TB when used alongside other disease control.

The first injectable badger vaccine was licensed in March 2010 and is available for use on prescription. Research is continuing into producing a licensed cattle vaccine with differential test and an oral badger vaccine.

Farmer advice

A number of new measures are being implemented, aimed at helping owners of bTB restricted herds to maintain their businesses and avoid some of the practical problems created by movement controls. Farmers wishing to find out more about bTB should contact their local APHA office.

Government-funded advice (based on the latest scientific evidence) is being developed, covering veterinary, biosecurity, and business issues. Farmers can now access free business support, on the Farming Community Network (FCN) website.

FCN agents will provide practical support, sign-post businesses to sources of other more specialist advice, and for those in greatest financial need a dedicated FCN Business Support Group will advise farmers on their options.

Lead poisoning on farms

Lead poisoning can cost you money and kill your cattle. The highest incidence usually occurs immediately after turn out when animals discover lead-containing materials abandoned on the pasture.

Accumulation of lead beyond legal limits renders meat, offal and milk unsafe and illegal to enter the food chain. Lead poisoning can also result in stunted animal growth, animal deaths, increased birth defects and infertility, decreased productivity, loss of market value and disposal costs for dead animals and vet fees.

The most frequent causes of lead poisoning in cattle are:

  • flaking high lead paint - mainly calves
  • vehicle and electric fence batteries - eg battery remains accidentally mixed with animal feed, or batteries fly-tipped on farm land
  • high lead soils - usually arising from historic mining and smelting operations, land erosion - especially by water courses but occasionally landslips
  • ash from fires in which lead materials were burned such as painted woodwork, leaded building materials, putty, wiring
  • lead shot from shooting which can be eaten with soil uptake and can also contaminate certain crops, especially maize and end up in silage

Withdrawal periods and offal removal

A 16-week withdrawal period before slaughter is usually sufficient but for lead which is retained in the stomach this can extend for several years. Some animals may show no signs of poisoning but have lead residues in milk, offal and meat. Offal tends to have higher levels of lead for longer periods than meat or milk.

Animals and/or their produce may need to be tested to investigate whether lead residues are present and also to monitor whether a withdrawal period has been adequate or whether offal should be removed after slaughter.

How to avoid lead contamination on your farm

There are several steps you can take to protect your cattle and the human food chain from lead contamination. You should:

  • check your fields and barns for vehicle batteries, building materials, flaking lead paint, putty, lead flashing
  • remove or fence off fly-tipped material
  • prevent access to burnt out cars and old machinery that might contain lead
  • prevent cattle access to bonfire ash

On farms with high lead soils, you should:

  • keep your cows’ soil consumption as low as possible
  • avoid waterlogged land and poached land for grazing
  • avoid overgrazing and maintain adequate sward height
  • fence off bare areas of soil
  • calibrate cutters when making silage to minimise soil uptake
  • flatten any molehills prior to cutting grass for silage
  • provide salt licks and mineral supplements
  • use mains water or tested borehole water rather than natural run-off water from high lead soils

What to do if you suspect lead poisoning in your cattle

If you suspect some of your cows are contaminated with lead, you must:

  • remove your cattle from the affected area (pasture, pen or yard) immediately
  • consult your vet
  • confirm the cause of disease and if it is lead poisoning then investigate the source

Advice and testing for lead in cattle, produce or soil is available from your private vet or local APHA office.

Cattle feed

Safe, good-quality foodstuffs are essential to maintain both human and animal health.

Feed contaminants such as lead or antimicrobial residues, or biological agents such as botulism, may cause disease in cattle and make their produce unsuitable for human consumption.

You can use some former foodstuffs, food previously intended for human consumption, as livestock feed, subject to the animal by-products regulations.

Former foodstuffs that can be fed to cattle include:

  • milk and milk-based products
  • biscuits
  • bakery waste
  • pasta
  • chocolate
  • sweets and similar products

Such products can contain rennet, melted fat, milk or eggs, as long as they are not the main ingredients. You must ensure that the products are not contaminated by meat or other animal products before feeding them to cattle.

You must not feed meat, fish and most other products of animal origin to ruminants, pigs or poultry, or allow them access to such material. Cattle should not be fed any processed or unprocessed catering waste, even if it comes from vegetarian restaurants and kitchens.

Hormonal treatments and antibiotics for cattle

Due to concerns about the potential risk to humans, the use of hormonal growth promoters for livestock is banned in the UK. Antibiotic growth-promoting feed additives have also been phased out - because of concerns about the potential spread of antibiotic resistance.

As a result, if you keep farmed animals there are restrictions on the use of treatments that:

  • act as beta-agonists
  • have hormonal actions
  • reduce production of thyroid hormones

You must prevent meat containing these substances from entering the human - or animal - food chain.

Restricted treatments include:

  • phenylbutazone
  • tetracyclines
  • sulphonamides
  • nalidixic acid
  • fusidic acid
  • florphenicol
  • ceftriaxone

Restricted antibiotic substances include:

  • chloramphenicol
  • ampicillin
  • amoxycillin/clavulanate
  • neomycin
  • gentamicin
  • enrofloxacin
  • tiamulin

You must not:

  • give food-producing animals restricted substances unless with any permitted exceptions
  • use substances containing oestradiol 17ß or its ester-like derivatives
  • use substances that contain beta-agonists to slow a labour - tocolysis - in cows when calving
  • use substances containing hormones or thyroid hormone-reducing actions unless prescribed by your veterinary surgeon
  • have food-producing animals on your farm that have been given any restricted substance, unless there are permitted exceptions
  • send animals to slaughter that have been given any restricted substances, unless there are permitted exceptions
  • sell meat or any other animal product that has been given a restricted substance

You must:

  • observe the relevant withdrawal period - ie the period between the end of treatment and the slaughter of the animal - if your food-producing animals have been given any of the restricted substances - see the guide on managing livestock veterinary medicines 
  • keep veterinary medicinal records relating to restricted substances available to the competent authority on request

See the code of practice on the responsible use of animal medicines on the farm.

Cattle inspections

In taking responsibility for your herd, you must have the skills needed to safeguard the animals’ health and welfare. This includes being familiar with the welfare code for that species.

Regular inspection of your herd is essential to maintain good health. You should be familiar with the normal behaviour of cattle and be alert for any signs of illness or distress.

See the guidance on cattle welfare.

Monitoring cattle

Signs of ill health in your cattle include:

  • listlessness
  • separation from the group
  • unusual behaviour
  • loss of body condition
  • loss of appetite
  • a sudden fall in milk yield
  • constipation
  • scouring (diarrhoea)
  • not cudding
  • discharge from the nostrils or eyes
  • increased saliva production
  • persistent coughing
  • rapid or irregular breathing
  • abnormal resting behaviour
  • swollen joints
  • lameness
  • mastitis

You should aim to recognise problems in their earliest stages so that you can identify the cause and take immediate action to resolve the issue. If the cause isn’t apparent, or if your remedy proves ineffective- you should seek urgent advice from a vet.

If you have any suspicion of a notifiable disease, you must contact your local APHA office immediately.


You must keep a record of all mortalities that occur among your herd, as well as any medicinal treatment given to your animals. These records need to be kept for at least three years.

You should only use authorised animal medicines. Your records should include:

  • the name and address of the medicine supplier
  • the date you treated the animals
  • which animal or group of animals you treated
  • how much medicine you used

Although it’s not a legal requirement, you may also find it useful to keep a record of specific cases and treatment given for certain disorders such as mastitis, lameness or milk fever.

Further information

Environment Agency Helpline

03708 506 506

RPA Customer Service Centre

0345 603 7777

Food Standards Agency Incident Prevention Coordination Team

020 7276 8735

Natural England Enquiry Service

0845 600 3078

NFSCo Helpline

0345 054 8888

Defra Helpline

03459 33 55 77

Food Standards Agency Helpline

020 7276 8829

Veterinary Medicines Directorate Helpline

01932 336 911

Cross Compliance Helpline

0345 345 1302

Published 29 August 2012