California Department of Food and Agriculture

Bovine Tuberculosis

What is TB?

Tuberculosis (TB) is a serious bacterial disease caused by Mycobacterium, a group of bacteria that usually affects the respiratory system. Animals infected with TB may not show signs for years, but animals that appear healthy may still be capable of transmitting infection to other animals. More...

Tuberculosis is classified into three types:

  • Human, most often caused by M. tuberculosis
  • Avian, caused by M. avium
  • Bovine, caused by M. bovis

Human TB, or M. tuberculosis, is rarely transmitted to animals, although M TB is often the type of TB that affects elephants. Avian TB is typically restricted to birds, but occasionally pigs and other animals can become affected. Bovine TB is a chronic disease that has affected animal health throughout recorded history and is capable of infecting most mammals.

For more information see our Bovine Tuberculosis Information for Livestock Producers Factsheet.


Bovine TB Status in California

The U.S. Department of Agriculture maintains a monitoring system that classifies states based on the presence of bovine TB within a state’s cattle population. States are classified in five categories: Accredited Free, Modified Accredited Advanced, Modified Accredited, Accreditation Preparatory and Non-Accredited. The categories are based on the number of cases of bovine TB that have been identified through surveillance programs. A state’s status can be downgraded if new cases of bovine TB are identified. More...

California has been involved in bovine TB eradication programs since 1917. In 1998, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) implemented an aggressive TB action plan with a special focus on the state’s large dairy industry. California achieved Accredited Free status in 1999; however, infection was detected in three Central Valley dairy herds in 2002 and 2003, causing a downgrade in TB-status in April 2003. After depopulating the infected herds, extensive tracing and testing over 700,000 cattle in Tulare, Kings and Fresno counties associated with the herds, California regained its Accredited Free status in April 2005.

Bovine TB was again detected on routine slaughter surveillance in a Fresno County dairy cow in December 2007. In May 2008, two associated Fresno County dairy herds were also confirmed TB affected. On September 18, 2008, the United States Department of Agriculture downgraded California’s bovine TB status from Accredited Free to Modified Accredited Advanced through a notice in the Federal Register. A fourth affected herd was confirmed in a San Bernardino County dairy herd in January 2009. Eight TB-infected cows were detected between these four herds and three different genetic strain-types were isolated indicating these cases had three separate sources. The strains were not related to the herds detected in California in 2002-2003. Trace investigations of these herds led to about 310 separate herd tests of more than 419,000 cattle in 254 herds. Two herds (5,000 & 1,000 cattle) were depopulated and two herds completing a “test and removal plan” were released from quarantine.

California was well on the way to regaining “TB-Free” status when, in April 2011, bovine TB was detected in a San Bernardino County dairy herd following the diagnosis of TB in a cow during routine slaughter surveillance (CDFA Press Release). On October 7, 2011 a second dairy herd was detected, again following the diagnosis of TB in a cow during routine slaughter surveillance. The genetic strain-type of the bovine TB differs between these two herds; the infections are not related. Both herds are on “test and removal plans”.

On December 7, 2011 a third dairy herd in San Bernardino County was diagnosed with bovine TB after the dairy was TB-tested by state and federal animal health officials because cattle had contact with the TB-affected dairy detected in San Bernardino County on October 7, 2011. Herd TB testing revealed one animal that had suspicious lesions during necropsy; samples were Mycobacteriosis compatible and confirmed positive for Mycobacterium tuberculosis complex species by polymerase chain reaction testing at the National Veterinary Services Laboratory.

On February 6, 2013 bovine tuberculosis (TB) was detected in a dairy herd in Tulare County. The diagnosis was made after a suspicious mass in a cow identified during routine slaughter inspection was confirmed positive. CDFA veterinarians, in coordination with USDA/APHIS/VS, initiated trace herd testing, which led to the detection of TB in the Tulare County herd.

Please see our California Bovine TB Update for information on the latest bovine TB investigations (June, 2013).

When moving cattle out of California, always check with the state of destination for their TB testing requirements.

Contact your local CDFA Animal Health Branch District Office if you have any questions.


The Significance of Bovine TB

The Department is concerned about the affects of TB on the industry for several reasons. First, there is a zoonotic risk for individuals consuming raw milk and raw milk products from TB–infected animals. Second, there is concern about the establishment of infection in a wide host range including free–ranging wild species. Additionally, infection with Bovine TB reduces production in affected cattle and imposes trade restrictions. While the risk of humans contracting bovine TB is extremely low, positive cases in the state’s cattle herd can negatively affect consumer confidence in milk and beef products. It is important for consumers and public health officials to understand that the TB bacteria is killed when meat is cooked and milk is pasteurized—steps that provide a final barrier to protect public health. More...

CDFA’s objectives for the bovine tuberculosis program are to:

  1. Minimize the risks to public health.
  2. Work in partnership with United States Department of Agriculture and industry to fully recognizing their roles and responsibilities in disease control and prevention.
  3. Use sound independent science to guide disease surveillance and control strategies.


California TB Eradication Program History

In the early 1900's the TB eradication program began in the U.S. because of the impact Bovine TB has on human and animal health. Initially, the TB program consisted of area testing, in which approximately 15% of a state's cattle population was tested each year; all herds in the state were tested every six years. This method was the primary tool used in the eradication effort until national prevalence levels of TB were greatly reduced. In 1994, California abandoned 'area testing' because the prevalence of TB had reached such low levels that area testing was no longer an efficient method to detect the disease. More...

Tuberculosis surveillance shifted to slaughterhouse inspection as the primary surveillance method; every bovine processed in California is examined for signs of disease. Any animals with lesions suspicious for TB are not used for human consumption and undergo further testing to determine if bovine TB is present. If an infected animal is detected, an investigation is initiated by the California Department of Food and Agriculture to determine the origin of the animal.


TB and Public Health

Bovine tuberculosis is a zoonotic disease, meaning humans can be infected by exposure to affected animals. As the prevalence of bovine TB has decreased and pasteurization has become routine, fewer human infections are traced to drinking milk. However, humans can still become infected by drinking raw milk or eating unpasteurized cheese from TB–infected animals. More...

Bovine tuberculosis does not threaten the quality and safety of milk and meat products produced in California. Almost all milk sold in California is pasteurized, which destroys organisms that can be harmful to humans, including tuberculosis organisms. The state’s raw milk dairies are regularly tested for tuberculosis. All cattle processed for meat are inspected for bovine TB and rejected for consumption if they show signs of the disease.

A few cases of airborne infection continue to occur among meat industry and slaughterhouse workers in regions where infection remains prevalent, including Mexico. Additionally, humans can transmit bovine tuberculosis back to cattle; however, unlike M. tuberculosis, it is rare that M. bovis is spread from human–to–human.


How is TB Transmitted?

Bovine TB is most commonly spread among cattle through respiration. Invisible droplets containing TB bacteria may be exhaled or coughed out by infected animals and then inhaled by another animal. Over 95 percent of the cases of bovine TB are transmitted through contact between cattle. Only 1 to 5 percent of infected cattle shed the organism in the milk. (FD Menzies and SD Neill, “Cattle–to–Cattle Transmission of Bovine Tuberculosis” The Veterinary Journal, 2000, 160, 92–106). Contaminated feed and water account for a very small percentage of bovine TB cases. Transmission of bovine TB through the contamination of the environment has not been documented in the U.S., and whitetail deer are the only wildlife reservoir identified in the U.S. More...

Signs of the Disease

Clinical signs consist of: cough, production loss, rough hair coat, chronic weight loss, variable appetite and fluctuating fevers. Ninety percent of animals infected with tuberculosis DO NOT develop clinical signs. Animals infected with bovine TB may not show any outward signs of illness, but may eventually exhibit weight loss and a gradual decline in general health.


In approximately 90 percent of tuberculosis cattle, lesions primarily involved the lymph nodes of the respiratory system. Lesions can also be found in thoracic cavity, head, and mesenteric lymph nodes. Approximately half of the lung lesions were located in the distal part of the diaphragmatic lobes. (FD Menzies and SD Neill, “Cattle–to–Cattle Transmission of Bovine Tuberculosis” The Veterinary Journal, 2000,160, 92–106).


Formation of the TB Tubercule

A tubercule is a granuloma consisting of inflammatory cells. When an animal's immune system identifies M. bovis, it releases inflammatory cells, chiefly macrophages. However, M. bovis is resistant to the destructive action of the macrophage, and once within the macrophage it replicates and destroys the macrophage. The animal's immune system still recognizes the TB invader and releases additional macrophages. These macrophages encapsulate the area to wall it off from other tissue and a tubercule forms. Tubercules are usually located in the respiratory lymph nodes and the lungs. The preliminary diagnosis of tuberculosis in slaughter establishments is the identification of these tubercules. Any granulomas suspected of being M. bovis granulomas are sent to an approved laboratory for further evaluation.


Archived TB Documents