Scrapie: how to spot and report the disease

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

Scrapie is a fatal brain disease that affects sheep and goats.

It is not known to pose a risk to human health.

Scrapie 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 scrapie

There are 2 types of scrapie - classical scrapie and atypical scrapie.

Classical scrapie usually affects animals aged between 2 and 5 years old. It is highly contagious and can be spread via colostrum and milk, and via contamination animals in buildings, bedding, equipment (feeding troughs) from infected animals, and pastures where animals have given birth.

Atypical scrapie usually affects animals older than 5. Cases usually occur in individual animals and it is believed to be little or not contagious at all.

Affected animals may:

  • become excitable
  • have drooping ears
  • act nervously or aggressively
  • lag behind other animals
  • show signs of depression or a vacant stare
  • tremble (this usually affects the head)
  • have an unusual high stepping trot
  • lack coordination and stumble or stand awkwardly
  • have weak hind legs or be unable to stand
  • unable to stand
  • weight loss - this is a late clinical sign

Their skin may be irritated which can mean they:

  • repeatedly rub their heads and bodies against fences, posts or hay racks
  • repeatedly scratch their flanks - horned animals may use their horns
  • nibble or grind teeth when rubbing themselves or when rubbed firmly on the back
  • repeatedly scratch their shoulders or ears with a hind foot
  • nibble the feet, legs or other parts of the body in an agitated way
  • have excessive wool loss or skin damage

Scrapie will eventually kill any animals that are affected by it.

Preventing and controlling scrapie

You can help prevent the disease by practising strict biosecurity on your premises.

Cleaning and disinfecting

The classical scrapie agent can remain in the environment for several years.

However, it’s resistant to most commercial disinfectants and thorough cleaning and disinfection of buildings will still reduce the level of infection.

You must disinfect buildings and equipment according to Environment Agency requirements, if you’re in England or Wales.

If you’re in Scotland, you must follow Scottish Environmental Protection Agency requirements.

Breeding for resistance

Some sheep are more genetically resistant to classical scrapie than others. But there appears to be no genetic resistance to classicial scrapie in goats.

You can use genotype testing to identify scrapie resistant sheep and then try to breed animals that are more resistant.

Talk to your vet to find out more about how to do this.

Buying resistant animals

You can make sure any animals you buy are either:

  • genetically resistant to classical scrapie
  • from flocks or herds which have been monitored for at least 3 years and are found to be free of classical scrapie

Milk and colostrum

Classical scrapie can be spread through colostrum and milk.

You should make sure any replacement colostrum or milk you buy comes from flocks or herds which have been monitored for at least 3 years and are found to be free of classical scrapie.

Don’t use pooled colostrum or milk in intensively managed flocks or herds of animals that are genetically susceptible to classical scrapie - use cow colostrum or artificial milk replacers instead.

Lambing or kidding

Sheep and goats can be infected by classical scrapie if they come into contact with birth fluids or afterbirth from infected animals.

You should remove afterbirths as soon as possible - you should also regularly clean and disinfect buildings you use for lambing or kidding.

What happens if you suspect scrapie

If you report suspicion of scrapie, APHA vets will visit your farm and investigate.

They’ll physically examine the suspect animal for signs of scrapie - if they suspect it has the disease, they’ll cull it and test it.

If they are not yet certain whether the animal may have scrapie, they will serve an order preventing you from moving it off your farm. They will visit the farm periodically to check for signs of scrapie.

They’ll stop you from moving sheep and goats in or out of your farm until they’re sure there’s no risk of scrapie.

If the suspect animal dies or you have it killed while it is under restriction then you must report this immediately to the Defra Rural Services Helpline on 03000 200 301.

What happens when scrapie is confirmed

Classical scrapie

If classical scrapie is confirmed, you must join the Compulsory Scrapie Flocks Scheme (CSFS).

Your local APHA office will register your premises and an APHA vet will contact you to assess your flock or herd, discuss the scheme, and decide how to apply control measures.

In most cases, APHA will stop you moving sheep and goats to your farm, except certain genetically resistant sheep. Movements of sheep and goats from your farm will only be allowed if the animals are going direct to slaughter for human consumption, or if sheep and kids aged under 3 months old are being sent for fattening before slaughter.

Animals aged over 18 months going for slaughter must be sent to designated abattoirs, where they will be sampled and tested for transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE). Animals aged over 18 months which die or are killed on the farm must also be sampled and tested for TSE.

When no cases of classical scrapie have been confirmed on your holding for 2 years, these movement restrictions and testing requirements will be removed and your holding will leave the CSFS.

However, if further cases have been confirmed in the meantime, APHA may consider further options to prevent the spread of the disease.

They may order that your sheep be genotyped and that genetically susceptible animals should be culled. In the case of a goat holding, they may order that all animals are culled.

You can’t use the milk or milk products of any animals that were on your premises any time after classical scrapie was confirmed and before restrictions were lifted as feed for animals on other farms.

Atypical scrapie

If atypical scrapie is confirmed, you must join the CSFS. There will be no restriction on the movement of your animals, but animals aged over 18 months going for slaughter must be sent to designated abattoirs, where they will be sampled and tested for TSE.

Animals aged over 18 months which die or are killed on the farm must also be sampled and tested for TSE. Again, these movement restrictions will be removed, and your holding will leave the CSFS, when no further cases have been confirmed for two years.

Compensation after culling

You’ll be paid compensation for:

  • a sheep or goat destroyed as a scrapie suspect
  • any other sheep or goats or their products which you’re forced to destroy after scrapie is confirmed or BSE is suspected

Compensation is done separately and at different rates for animals destroyed as scrapie suspects and for animals destroyed under the CSFS.

See the guidance on compensation.

Published 2 June 2015
Last updated 18 October 2018 + show all updates
  1. Contact details for reporting a notifiable disease updated.

  2. First published.