Animal Observation

  • Observe - Learn how to recognize when animals look “off” due to an illness.
  • Record - Prepare to keep records.
  • Sample - Work with your herd veterinarian to learn how to collect samples in the event they might be used to test for disease during an outbreak.
  • Report - Develop a communication plan so everyone knows how to report abnormal findings in your herd.

Farm worker inspecting a swine herd for signs of illnessThe producer or animal caretaker, in cooperation with the local veterinarian, is the first line of defense in protecting the herd from the spread of illness and diseases, beginning with the detection of a sick animal. Most farmers know their animals very well and can notice even subtle changes in an animal’s behavior such as isolation, loss of appetite, lethargy, etc., which can be the first indications of an illness or injury. Animals exhibiting these minor changes in behavior should be monitored closely and a veterinarian should be contacted if the signs do not disappear in a short period of time.

More visible signs such as coughing, excessive salivation, diarrhea, abortions, and neurological disorders (e.g., circling, head pressing, stumbling, blindness) are obvious concerns. At the first sign of problems, a veterinarian should be called to make a farm visit for evaluation. If possible, the animals' caretakers should be trained to determine heart rate, respiratory rate, temperature, and dehydration status. This information can be useful during the first call to the veterinarian to indicate the severity of the problem. Knowing the number of animals affected also helps the veterinarian determine the extent of the problem.

Keep in mind that animals with infectious diseases exhibit signs of illness after an incubation period, which is the time from pathogen exposure to the time clinical symptoms appear. The incubation period can vary from hours to weeks, and with some diseases animals may be shedding the pathogen (and therefore exposing other animals to the biological agent) during that time.

An infectious disease is caused by pathogenic microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi. During a disease outbreak, it is important to determine if the disease agent can be transmitted from one individual to another.

There are generally two categories of transmissible diseases:

  • Contagious - infectious diseases that can spread from animal to animal are called contagious. A contagious disease is transmitted to other animals, either by physical contact with the animal suffering from the disease, by casual contact with their secretions or objects touched by them, or airborne routes. Contagiousness varies between diseases.
  • Noncontagious - a disease that is not transmitted from animal to animal or contracted from objects.

Highly contagious diseases spread rapidly and may affect large numbers of animals; they can have a high morbidity and mortality rate and can be transmitted via direct and indirect routes. Infectious diseases classified as not highly contagious generally spread slowly and affect a very small number of animals.

Content Source
Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN). Animal Agrosecurity and Emergency Management. Retrieved from (Enrollment required to view course.)

Look for Signs of Illness


Farmer observing a sheep herd.

Generally, it is most effective to observe and assess an animal’s health and well-being as a single and separate task, rather than combining it with other tasks or chores. If daily observations are combined with other tasks, the potential for missing something crucial increases, as the focus is on completing all of the tasks rather than observing the animal.


Observe each animal daily to assess its health and well-being. Carefully observe each animal from head to tail, including each part of its body and behavior, for abnormalities that may indicate a potential problem. Also, look at the feces and discharge from the animal if there is any, for signs of abnormalities. Establish a consistent method for conducting your daily observations.  If you aren't sure how, consult with a veterinarian on how to perform daily observations of animals. Checklists and similar tools are helpful for ensuring daily observations are consistent and effective in assessing animal health and well-being.


Things to consider when conducting your observations (not limited to the following):

  • Physical Attributes

    How does the animal look? Are there any abnormalities? Consider handling the animal if safe and appropriate to do so. Not only will you be able to use touch as an observational tool, you will also promote social interactions and neurological well-being.

  • Body

    Is haircoat normal? Glossy or dull, hair loss? Under or over weight? Can you see the ribs? Itching? Scabbing? Lumps? Bumps? Parasites?

  • Head

    Eyes – clear, discharge, winking or blinking excessively? Ears/Nose – clean, discharge or buildup? Mouth/Teeth/Gums - clean, buildup (tartar), bleeding or injuries?

  • Limbs/Extremities

    Feet – Nails/Claws/Hooves proper length, wounds or abnormalities? Joints – calluses, mobility, lameness?

  • Illness in Poultry

    Signs could include: Sudden increase in bird deaths in your flock; Sneezing, gasping for air, coughing, and nasal discharge; Watery and green diarrhea; Lack of energy and poor appetite; Drop in egg production or soft- or thin-shelled, misshapen eggs; Swelling around the eyes, neck, and head; Purple discoloration of the wattles, combs, and legs (avian influenza; Tremors, drooping wings, circling, twisting of the head and neck, or lack of movement (exotic Newcastle disease).

  • Behavior

    Is the animal acting normal? Is the movement or gait normal? Is the animal lethargic or displaying behaviors consistent with sickness, stress, or boredom? Does the behavior change when you move closer or farther away from the animal? For example, does the animal act stoic and appear to be normal upon closer examination, but when walking away or from a distance the animal appears to have a limp or injury or displays different behavior.

  • Environment

    Is the animal’s environment safe? Are environmental controls (temperature, humidity, shelter from elements) adequate for the species and the season? Is the animal: Huddling or shivering due to cold? Panting, or laying stretched out due to heat? Food and water receptacles used or left alone? Eating and drinking enough? Elimination habit normal? Loose or abnormal stools? Vomit? Regurgitated food/water?

  • Animals Under Veterinary Care

    Daily observation is required for all animals at a facility whether or not the animals are under veterinary care and/or treatment. However, when observing animals under veterinary care and/or treatment, it is important to observe how the treatment is progressing. Consider the following: Is the treatment working? Is the animal’s health improving, about the same, or worsening? When should you follow up with your attending veterinarian? If the animal’s condition is worsening or you’ve completed treatment but the animal seems about the same, is it time to call the veterinarian with an update? What should you be documenting as part of your observation and treatment plan?

Record Keeping

  • Keep records of daily observations and contacts with the attending veterinarian

    • Animal identification.
    • Date.
    • What the problem was.
    • Method of contact to the attending veterinarian (phone, text, email, visit).
    • The attending veterinarian’s advice.

  • Capture

    Capture information on daily observations, including photographs and videos, using a tablet or smartphone that can immediately connect to a main office computer for review.

  • Create

    Create a system to log daily observation recordings, such as notebook/binder or spreadsheet/database.

  • Look

    Look at every animal and enclosure at the beginning of each day. Make a list of what needs to be fixed, repaired, clipped, moved, medicated, etc. This creates a “to-do list” for the day for planning and maintenance in addition to accomplishing daily observations.

  • Provide

    Provide training to all staff with responsibility for conducting daily observation on recognizing physical and behavioral concerns, and, the established protocol within the facility for documenting and communicating with the attending veterinarian.

  • Monitor

    Monitor appetite and diet consumption as potential early indicators of concern. Include weekly weight checks in the observation program.

Content Source
USDA APHIS Animal Care Tech Note. December 2017. Retrieved from

Foreign Animal Disease Observation

The BUDDIES system will help you recognize serious emerging or foreign animal diseases.