Contact with birthing fluids and tissues from sheep, goats and cattle can transmit Q fever to humans.
Contact with birthing fluids and tissues from sheep, goats and cattle can transmit Q fever to humans.

Q fever is a rickettsial infection caused by Coxiella burnetii bacterium. It is widespread globally among livestock and domestic ruminants, and sheep, cattle and goats are the most frequent source of human infection.

Veterinarians should be aware of Q fever and its transmission to humans as calving, lambing and kidding season approaches. Clients and veterinary staff, especially pregnant women, can be at risk for inhaling or ingesting the bacterium through dust or birthing fluids and tissues such as placenta. Acute Q fever during human pregnancy may result in an adverse effect on the fetus including prematurity, low birth weight, or abortion.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say most people who get sick start having symptoms two to three weeks after getting C. burnetii, although symptoms can start sooner. These symptoms include fever, headache, chest or stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. The fever can last one to two weeks, but many people can also get more serious lung or liver infections as a result of Q fever.

To minimize risk of human Q fever, the CDC recommends:

  • When possible, avoid contact with the placenta, birth products, fetal membranes and aborted fetuses of sheep, cattle and goats.
  • Eat and drink only pasteurized milk and milk products.
  • If you work around pregnant sheep and goats, get vaccinated (where possible) against C. burnetii infection.
  • Quarantine imported animals.
  • If you have pre-existing heart valve disease or have had valve replacements, be extra careful around areas with sheep, cattle and goats.

The CDC also recommends that gloves, eye protection, and a protective mask can be worn when handling sheep or goats, their manure, bedding, or soil from premises where these animals have been kept. Given that the organism can be shed by otherwise healthy sheep and goats at birthing, wearing this protective gear may be warranted when administering obstetrical assistance to these animals, or when handling the bedding, birthing fluids, or birthing membranes.

See more Q fever prevention recommendations from the CDC here.