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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Overview of Management and Nutrition

By Robert Tremblay, DVM, DVSc, DACVIM, Boehringer Ingelheim (Canada) Ltd

Almost all domesticated animals rely on their caretakers to maintain their health and well-being, to provide appropriate nutrition, and to meet behavioral needs and any special physiologic requirements. The success of proper management and nutrition is especially important to agricultural species that must sustain growth and production. Genetic advancement has led to continual increases in productivity that place similar continual pressure on animal husbandry management to ensure it does not limit animal health, well-being, or productivity.

Proper management and nutrition are also central to the prevention and control of infectious and noninfectious diseases. Infectious diseases occur after colonization of an animal by microbes (eg, a bacterium, virus, rickettsia, parasite), but simple infection by a microorganism is not usually sufficient for disease to develop. Environmental and host factors influence whether the animal will develop clinical or subclinical disease or have impaired productivity. Management has a substantial impact on environmental and host conditions that contribute to disease susceptibility.

Eradication and exclusion of specific organism(s) that cause disease is the only certain way to prevent infectious disease. This is usually impractical or impossible for many common diseases of agricultural animals. As a result, it becomes necessary to control rather than to prevent infectious disease by reducing circumstances that favor the presence or the spread of the infectious agent, by mitigating environmental circumstances that contribute to development of disease once animals have become infected, and by minimizing circumstances that increase host susceptibility. Circumstances that contribute to the development of a disease are called risk factors, and they can be related to the microbe, the environment, or the host. Identifying and mitigating the impact of risk factors is the goal of a management strategy to prevent specific diseases and to maintain productivity.

A multifaceted approach to disease prevention and control through management practices is particularly important when dealing with many of the common infectious and noninfectious diseases seen in food animal production systems (eg, enzootic pneumonia in calves and piglets, neonatal diarrhea, bovine respiratory disease complex of feedlot cattle, infectious infertility in swine and cattle, metabolic disease in dairy cows) as well as in companion animals (eg, respiratory disease in catteries, kennel cough in canine boarding facilities, infertility and viral respiratory disease in horses). Many of these diseases are difficult to control without an integrated approach, because they either have a complex etiology involving the interaction of multiple microbes or are caused by pathogens for which there are no reliable treatments or effective specific preventive measures.

Prevention and control of these diseases is best achieved by implementing management practices to mitigate recognized risk factors for infection, disease development, and impaired productivity. Often, these are general management recommendations that are not targeted at specific infectious organisms. Effective control may also require implementation of management practices to address risk factors unique to particular pathogens and diseases.

The need to identify and implement multifaceted management strategies that will maintain health and enhance productivity is likely to increase in animal agriculture. This need for new strategies is driven by competitive and economic forces within the industry and by pressure for change from interested parties outside agriculture. Identifying and implementing these management changes requires collaborative efforts of all groups working in livestock production, including veterinarians, animal scientists, and nutritionists, with consideration of economic and other forces acting on producers.

All of agriculture, but particularly animal agriculture, is under pressure from consumer and special interest groups to address community concerns arising from some industry practices. These concerns include potential links between agricultural practices and antimicrobial resistance in human pathogens, relationships between environmental contamination and intensive animal production, the role of agricultural management practices in reducing the risks of foodborne illnesses and risks of exposure to zoonotic pathogens, and the impact of agricultural practices on animal welfare. Even though there may be no conclusive evidence linking livestock production to these public health and public interest issues, livestock production management will likely change in response to the perception of such links. Any changes in current practices will require development of new approaches to maintain animal health and production, which will require a substantial investment in research and education.

Increasingly, livestock production must ensure that management practices are implemented at the farm level as part of the industry-wide system to maintain the safety and wholesomeness of the food supply. Validated on-farm food safety programs are often based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles. They emphasize that all stages of the food production chain have a role in ensuring food quality and safety. Developing, implementing, and auditing these management programs are essential to maintain consumer confidence. These programs require implementation and documentation of management practices that reduce the risk of physical, chemical, or microbial hazards entering the human food supply through production practices on farms.

Animal agriculture is also under pressure from within the industry to better protect the industry itself. Well-publicized outbreaks of disease such as bluetongue, Schmallenberg virus, avian influenza, and transmissible spongiform encephalopathies in several species (eg, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, scrapie, chronic wasting disease) have focused the industry's attention on biosecurity as a disease prevention and control strategy. Biosecurity is a set of management practices that aims to prevent the introduction of infectious or other disease-causing agents and/or to prevent the further spread of agents that are introduced or are already present (see also Biosecurity). Biosecurity programs can be implemented at a room, building, farm, regional, or national level. Similar to disease prevention programs, biosecurity programs often comprise a set of general practices and sets of management practices targeted at specific pathogens.

Nutritional management is a subcategory of animal management. Proper nutrition is essential to health and productivity. Nutrition also plays a role in susceptibility to disease (eg, feline lower urinary tract disease) as well as in the medical management of certain diseases (eg, diabetes in dogs and cats, equine metabolic syndrome, ketosis and hypocalcemia in dairy cattle). Rations/diets must be formulated to provide for basic physiologic needs (eg, energy, protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals) and to ensure optimal growth and productivity. Proper ration formulation considers age, sex, breed, physical activity, and lactation and gestational status.

Nutritionally related diseases include diseases associated with a nutritional excess (eg, direct toxic effect, digestive upset), nutritional deficiency (either primary or secondary), or nutritional imbalance. In animal agriculture, health and production are also heavily influenced by feeding management in addition to ration formulation. Feed preparation and delivery are often as important in ensuring animal health and productivity as the actual nutritional value of the ration itself. Inadequacies in nutritional delivery can directly cause disease (eg, ruminal acidosis, laminitis) or increase susceptibility to disease (eg, Clostridium perfringens enterotoxemia).

Nutritionally related diseases in companion animals also include both conditions of excess (eg, developmental orthopedic disease in dogs related to excess calcium and energy) and of deficiency (eg, blindness in cats related to taurine deficiency).

Feeds and feeding management can also influence animal health if feeding results in exposure to foodborne physical hazards (eg, sharp objects), chemicals (eg, mycotoxins, toxic plants), allergens (eg, dust mites, mold spores), or microbes (eg, molds, Salmonella spp). Feeding and waste management practices are also important to prevent and control infectious diseases spread through fecal-oral transmission (eg, salmonellosis, neosporosis, paratuberculosis, toxoplasmosis).