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A fair challenge: Preventing spread of animal diseases

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Third-graders from Armatage Montessori in Minneapolis pet a sheep.
Third-graders from Armatage Montessori in Minneapolis pet a sheep in the CHS Miracle of Birth building during Urban Ag Day at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in St. Paul, Minn., Tuesday, May 8, 2018.
Tom Baker for MPR News

As farm animals from across Minnesota head to the State Fair this week, the Board of Animal Health is asking everyone to help limit the spread of disease.

Farm animal exhibits are a perennial favorite at the fair, but senior veterinarian Courtney Wheeler says from an animal health perspective, it’s a major challenge.

Over the next two weeks, the fairgrounds will be home to more than 20,000 animals. They’re all close together, breathing the same air, getting touched by the same curious children. It’s an ideal environment for spreading infectious disease.

For that reason, Board of Animal Health officials have released a biosecurity checklist.

All animals will be inspected upon arrival by a team of veterinarians, and again every day they stay at the fair.

“We’ll be looking for any clinical symptoms,” Wheeler said. “Runny nose. Coughing. We’d be very concerned if we found blisters.”

Blisters could mean foot-and-mouth disease, which is highly contagious in cows, pigs and sheep.

Animals with even minor symptoms will either be sent home or isolated. But there’s only so much the veterinarians can do.

“Sick animals might be contagious before they show symptoms,” she said.

Animal owners must disinfect all their gear, clothing and vehicles before traveling to the fair. Once they get home, Wheeler recommends isolating show animals for up to a month, just to make sure no diseases hitched a ride back to the farm.

But the most important safety measure, she said, is really simple: Fair visitors should wash their hands before touching animals, and before walking from one animal barn to another.

“And wash your hands before you eat something,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how many people forget to do that.”

Hand washing stations will be available all over the livestock area.