The Nature of Cattle Plague or Rinderpest

  • C. A. Spinage


“And there was a mortality upon the animals in all the island of Britain,” wrote a Welsh chronicler of the year ad 810. Cattle plague or rinderpest, the highly infectious and most lethal of bovine diseases, described as the most dreaded above all of animal contagions, had repeatedly ravaged Europe since time immemorial. Perhaps first brought west from central Asia by the Scythians in the 9th to 8th century bc, the irruption of the Huns from the east of Europe in the 4th century ad could have originated a chain of epizootics which was to be continued by the armies of Charlemagne in the 9th century, leading to the introduction of rinderpest into Britain with the cross-channel exploits of the Danes, or the Saxons themselves. Almost a thousand years later, in the 18th century, rinderpest is estimated to have carried off more than 200 million head of cattle in Europe, exclusive of Siberia and Tartary. Germany alone lost 28 million head between 1711 and 1865, three in every four animals dying. Following its introduction into Britain in 1745, the losses in 1745–57 were estimated at in excess of half a million head. Its introduction in 1865 with a dozen oxen led to the death, including those which were slaughtered, of 278, 943 animals, some estimates putting the loss as high as 420,000, representing 7% of the national herd, according to some, affecting livestock farming and the meat trade for the next 25 years. But it was pointed out in 1877 that this loss was over 13,000 head less per year than the average loss each year in the 1870s from various other diseases (especially pleuropneumonia and foot-and-mouth disease (FMD)) (Brown, 1877). In 1931, one worker wrote: “The study of the [rinderpest] plague is at the moment followed throughout the whole world.” Belgians, Dutch, English, French, Italians, Japanese, and Persian veterinairians were occupied in studying it (Delpy, 1931; Figure 1). The years 1979–84 saw an upsurge in Africa lead to losses of an estimated 1 million head, a stark reminder of its continuing presence and devastating potential in the world.


Infected Animal Canine Distemper Virus African Buffalo Fresh Skin Royal Veterinary College 
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  1. 1.
    Plowright (1968) has provided a detailed technical history of the experimental studies of the properties of the virus.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The pustules, originally thought to be rinderpest exanthema, are caused by exacerbations of latent cowpox as a result of massive destruction of lymphocytes. The activated latent pathogens emerge and become obvious 7–10 days after entry of the rinderpest virus, and their detection is considered to indicate a good prognosis of survival, in contrast to fulminating victims that usually die in 3–12 days. In addition to cowpox, the eruptions can also be caused by dermatophilosis in zebu cattle in Africa and Plains cattle of India, that, and cowpox eruptions, being wrongly labelled “skin rinderpest.”Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    A contemporary annotation in an Elizabethan hand to a first edition of Mascall (1587) against the subtitle The Cattle Plague or Murren reads “Alias the mountaine evil,” a term I have not been able to trace elsewhere. It perhaps derives from 16th-century outbreaks of anthrax in the Swiss Alps.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    No longer in use, “filterable virus” referred to an organism small enough to pass through a porcelain filter which would hold back bacteria. Meaning poison in Latin, the word virus for a disease organism had been in use since the 16th century.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2003

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  • C. A. Spinage

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