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Threat to Cattle


On this date in 1904, the Bismarck Tribune announced an outbreak of cattle scab in North Dakota. It was noted that the disease infected the finest herds in the state. The origin was traced to a cattle sale in Fargo involving cattle owned by a well-known Minnesota breeder. The breeder was not blamed, as an examination determined that his herd at home was free of the disease. However, a railcar in which he shipped his cattle had been used to transport animals from Montana or Texas. Those animals carried scabies and the car hadn’t been disinfected.

Scabies is a contagious disease caused by a parasite so small it can barely be seen by the naked eye. It causes severe skin inflammation and itching. Common scab was prevalent among cattle on the range throughout western states until about 1938.

The disease spreads rapidly through direct contact. It usually begins when one animal with lesions too small to be noticed is introduced into a clean herd. It can quickly infect the entire group, with serious consequences. Infected cattle can be so uncomfortable and spend so much time itching that they don’t eat properly and lose weight. The consequences are worse for range cattle. Any injury combined with weakness, poor nutrition, or severe cold can result in death. Rubbing and scratching by cows can also interfere with nursing calves. Losses can mount into the millions.

In 1904 the Department of Agriculture made a serious effort to rid the range of scabies. It worked in conjunction with state livestock officials and local ranchers. More than one million cattle in the West were inspected. Over 160,000 head were dipped to try to cure them of the disease. The following year the Department put veterinarians in the field and instituted a quarantine where the disease was prevalent.

In spite of the precautions, scabies spread rapidly until about 1911. After that, there was a slow but steady decline. By 1938, the disease was considered almost entirely under control.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Roberts, Irwin H. and N.G. Corbett. “Cattle Scabies.” Yearbook of Agriculture, 1956.

Bismarck Tribune. “Scab in the Valley.” Bismarck, ND, 27 January, 1904.