May 3, 2006 | By: Laura Skillman
LEXINGTON, KY.

Scientists at the Livestock Disease Diagnostic Center are somewhat like the sleuths seen on television trying to solve a crime. But the LDDC scientists are involved in the real day-to-day struggles of ensuring the state’s animal populations remain healthy.

Researchers at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture facility work with farmers and veterinarians across Kentucky to improve animal health and find solutions as new diseases develop. Horses and cattle alone account for more than $1.6 billion of the state’s economy. Ensuring their welfare is vital to the agricultural sector of nearly every county in Kentucky.

In 2005, the facility had about 60,000 cases that included nearly 150,000 animals ranging from horses and cattle, to cats and dogs, to reptiles and a zoo animal. The cases are problem-based and may involve an individual animal or an entire herd, said Lenn Harrison, LDDC director. They also do equine testing on animals from other states that may be coming to sales in the Lexington area.

The equine industry makes up about half of the center’s work. Cattle comprise 30 percent or more, and poultry also makes up a significant amount of the center’s work. The rest is varied animal species.

Spring is the facility’s busiest time of year because “mamas are having babies” – mares and foals and cows and calves – and this represents a big part of the state’s overall animal enterprises, Harrison said.

“A great deal of our work is done on live animals; for example, a cow or a horse is sick and a nasal swab may be taken, then we get the swab to test,” Harrison said. “Or we may get a blood sample.”

Necropsies are performed at the facility and are an important diagnostic tool especially when there is a herd risk, he said. But the goal is to eliminate losses by early disease detection and intervention.

Many times diagnostic labs such as the LDDC are among the first to identify disease outbreaks. That was the case in 2001, when Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome caused many mares in the state to lose their foals. Through the work of the LDDC, other UK scientists and private veterinarians, the contributing factors were identified and MRLS foal losses have not been experienced recently.

Efforts to educate the public on proper health regimes has aided in the reduction and control of animal diseases such as black leg in cattle. Helping to spread the word on proper vaccination schedules made this disease much less prevalent today than 15 years ago.

The LDDC was built in 1971 near UK’s Coldstream Research Farm and its caseload has grown substantially. It is the smallest of the nationally accredited labs and at this point has only received provisional accreditation. The lab is working on a renovation and expansion project to ensure it gains full accreditation and that there is adequate space to meet the needs of the state’s livestock producers. Funding for the second phase of the expansion was cut from the state budget but efforts continue to find funding to ensure the project can be completed.

LDDC’s mission to protect the state’s animal health, in particular horses as well as cattle, poultry and other food animals, is of high importance to the College of Agriculture, said Nancy Cox, associate dean for research and director of the agricultural experiment station.

“In recent years we have engaged in extensive planning with stakeholders about their needs for the lab, and we have instituted many changes to enhance the service and facilities for the benefit of Kentucky’s veterinarians and producers,” she said. “We are proud of the progress so far and have aggressive plans to continue the enhancements.

Harrison said while science and technology have changed since the facility opened, its focus has been unwavering – to assist in identifying diseases so the proper controls and treatment could be implemented on the farm level. The center also assists and supports veterinarians in the field.

“It is still the basis for what we do here,” he said. “Our concern is disease identification and control. We’re looking for health more than for disease because we would much rather identify a disease early and control it and reduce losses.”

Science used at the center also continues to expand. There are 70 employees at the LDDC including 12 faculty positions – with sections in microbiology, serology, virology, toxicology, molecular biology, pathology, necropsy, histopathology and clinical pathology. The center has also hired an epidemiologist.

“We have focused heavily on disease identification and are going to continue to do that, but we are going to expand it into the area of epidemiology with the addition of Craig Carter,” Harrison said.

With this technology they can look at information as it is being collated on a day-to-day basis allowing for very early discovery of potential problems.

“The more information, the more helpful it is to folks who need it,” Harrison said. “It means more testing as well as obtaining more information about each individual farm.”

LDDC scientists use the same techniques and methods as other researchers but in opposite directions, he said.

“In research you start at a certain point and move forward to observe what’s happening,” he said. “We are always working in reverse where something has happened and we have to work backwards to explain and understand why it has taken place.”

While Harrison is accustomed to their research sometimes being compared to television crime scene investigations, he notes that in the real world of disease diagnosis and control they don’t always solve the case, especially not in an hour. 

Diagnostic testing and investigations require teamwork by LDDC staff, especially by the specialists, he said. One example has been their work with West Nile virus where mosquitoes, birds and horses from across the state were tested at the lab for the state Department of Public Health. This helped the state plan its spray schedule to reduce mosquitoes in areas most needed to protect human health.

Another example is when the pathologist examines tissues of an aborted fetus and identifies that the fetus died in the womb due to suspected leptospira infection, which is then confirmed by the microbiologist using the specific test.

“For many cases, there is often true, effective collaboration,” Harrison said.

The center, as with all diagnostic labs, has also been called on to test and monitor for such diseases as bovine spongiform encephalopathy and avian influenza. To date avian flu as not been found in the United States and no cases of BSE have been found in Kentucky.

The LDDC is often called upon to provide laboratory support for the state veterinarian during disease outbreaks. In late 2005, equine neurologic herpes was diagnosed and the barn which housed the horses was immediately quarantined. Around-the-clock laboratory testing conducted at the LDDC to ensure that all infected animals were identified as early as possible. A final set of negative tests by LDDC in January 2006 allowed the state veterinarian to lift the quarantine. The LDDC support helped to ensure this outbreak did not spread to other barns.

“The lab has been an important sentinel for detection of the herpes virus, running samples that are essential for the state veterinarian to determine whether to admit racehorses from other states,” Cox said. “This example and many others demonstrate how the laboratory services of the LDDC are key to the success of the Kentucky horse industry and animal agriculture in general.”

Contact: 

Lenn Harrison, (859) 253-0571, Nancy Cox, (859) 257-3333