Invasive Species Compendium

Detailed coverage of invasive species threatening livelihoods and the environment worldwide


bovine respiratory syncytial virus infection



bovine respiratory syncytial virus infection


  • Last modified
  • 27 June 2018
  • Datasheet Type(s)
  • Animal Disease
  • Preferred Scientific Name
  • bovine respiratory syncytial virus infection
  • Overview
  • Bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV) was first isolated during a disease outbreak in Switzerland in 1970 (van Vuuren, 1994...

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Preferred Scientific Name

  • bovine respiratory syncytial virus infection

International Common Names

  • English: atypical bovine interstitial pneumonia; bovine respiratory syncytial virus, brsv; enzootic calf pneumonia; shipping fever; shipping fever of cattle


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Bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV) was first isolated during a disease outbreak in Switzerland in 1970 (van Vuuren, 1994). BRSV is an important pathogen in cattle populations because it is a viral component of the bovine respiratory disease complex, and it causes acute viral pneumonia in calves and yearlings (Radostits et al., 1994). When an animal becomes infected with BRSV, mild respiratory signs including coughing, excessive salivation, lacrimation, nasal discharge and decreased food consumption may occur. If the respiratory disease is not recognised and treated promptly, it can progress rapidly to severe clinical signs such as fever, dyspnea, submandibular oedema, extreme respiratory distress, and death. When a herd outbreak occurs, morbidity rates are high. Although mortality rates vary, they usually are less than 20%. Disease treatments are aimed at controlling secondary bacterial pathogens, because mortality in BRSV-infected cattle is usually due to secondary bacterial pneumonia (Baker, 1993a). Clinical disease associated with BRSV infection most often occurs in calves from 2 to 6 months of age (van der Poel et al., 1994), although fatal disease can occur in adult animals that are naive or have weak immunity (Ellis et al., 1996).

Hosts/Species Affected

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Although cattle are by far the most common reservoir for BRSV, this virus has also been diagnosed in sheep, goats and wild ruminants. BRSV has been associated with rhinitis in sheep. Studies have shown that sheep can be infected experimentally with BRSV, but it is not known whether the sheep or goat respiratory syncytial viruses have the ability to cause disease in cattle. Although humans are not susceptible to BRSV, human respiratory syncytial virus (HRSV) has been experimentally shown to cause a mild respiratory disease in calves (Baker and Frey, 1985).


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Although seroprevalence has been studied more in some countries than in others, BRSV is thought to be worldwide in distribution, many countries having a high number of seropositive cattle (Baker et al., 1997). While the number of seropositive animals is high, the reported incidence rate of respiratory disease is much lower because many infections are clinically non-apparent. BRSV has been isolated from numerous countries including the USA, Austria, Japan, Australia, North Africa and many countries in Europe (Wellemans, 1990).

Distribution Table

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The distribution in this summary table is based on all the information available. When several references are cited, they may give conflicting information on the status. Further details may be available for individual references in the Distribution Table Details section which can be selected by going to Generate Report.

Continent/Country/RegionDistributionLast ReportedOriginFirst ReportedInvasiveReferenceNotes


ChinaPresentLiu and Jiang, 1986
IranPresentSakhaee et al., 2009
IsraelPresentAvraham et al., 1994
JapanPresentGiangaspero et al., 2013
Korea, Republic ofPresentPark et al., 1988
SyriaPresentGiangaspero et al., 1992
ThailandPresentAiumlamai et al., 1992
TurkeyPresentBurgu et al., 1990


Congo Democratic RepublicPresentJetteur et al., 1988
EgyptPresentSaber et al., 1996
EthiopiaPresentWoldemeskel et al., 2000
MoroccoPresentMahin and Shimi, 1982
South AfricaPresentVuuren, 1990
TogoPresentEspinasse et al., 1980

North America

CanadaPresentPresent based on regional distribution.
-AlbertaPresentDurham and Hassard, 1990
-OntarioPresentLynch et al., 1985
-QuebecPresentGanaba et al., 1995
-SaskatchewanPresentDonkersgoed et al., 1990
MexicoPresentCortese et al., 1991
USAPresentPresent based on regional distribution.
-AlabamaPresentRossi and Kiesel, 1974
-CaliforniaPresentAguirre et al., 1995
-ColoradoPresentAguirre et al., 1995
-IdahoPresentEvermann and Trigo, 1985
-KansasPresentKeister, 1981
-MinnesotaPresentBaker and Frey, 1985
-MontanaPresentAguirre et al., 1995
-NebraskaPresentJohnson et al., 1986
-New YorkPresentCastleman et al., 1985
-OregonPresentEvermann and Trigo, 1985
-UtahPresentAguirre et al., 1995
-WashingtonPresentHein et al., 1991
-WyomingPresentAguirre et al., 1995

Central America and Caribbean

CubaPresentNúnez and Castell, 1987

South America

ArgentinaPresentBagnis et al., 1999
BrazilPresentPresent based on regional distribution.
-Rio de JaneiroPresentGonÇalves et al., 1993
ChilePresentRiedemann et al., 1996
ColombiaPresentBetancur et al., 2011
EcuadorPresentSaa et al., 2012
UruguayPresentRivero et al., 2013
VenezuelaPresentObando et al., 2002


AustriaPresentCoulibaly, 1990
BelgiumPresentAntoine, 1980
BulgariaPresentKharalambiev et al., 1984
CroatiaPresentMadic et al., 1989
Czech RepublicPresentKovarcík, 1999
Czechoslovakia (former)PresentPospisil et al., 1978
DenmarkPresentBitsch and Martin, 1978
FinlandPresentHärtel et al., 2004
FrancePresentBrugère-Picoux et al., 1985
GermanyPresentHeckert et al., 1995
HungaryPresentBartha et al., 1986
ItalyPresentCancellotti et al., 1980
LithuaniaPresentSalomskas et al., 2008
NetherlandsPresentPoel et al., 1999
NorwayPresentKrogsrud and Oedegaard, 1977
PolandPresentKlimentowski et al., 1995
PortugalPresentStilwell et al., 2007
SloveniaPresentHostnik, 1996
SwedenPresentElvander, 1996
SwitzerlandPresentFlorent et al., 1985
UKPresentPaton et al., 1998
Yugoslavia (former)PresentMadic et al., 1989
Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro)PresentMadic et al., 1989


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The pathological changes associated with BRSV are usually restricted to the respiratory tract. Necrotizing bronchiolitis as well as bronchioloitis obliterans are characteristic lesions (van Vuuren, 1994). The virus infects ciliated and non-ciliated epithelial cells of the airways. BRSV can also infect the alveolar epithelium, leading to interstitial pneumonia. The lungs will appear emphysematous and have an increased volume. Lobular bronchopneumonia may be evident in the apical and cranial lobes. Large ecchymotic haemorrhages and emphysematous bullae are found within the pleura (Wellemans, 1990). The cranioventral lung lobes usually contain the characteristic multi-nucleated syncytial cells. Eosinophilic intracytoplasmic inclusion bodies are sometimes visible within these cells (Baker and Frey, 1985). The diaphragmatic lobes may have distended septa and may be severely oedematous and emphysematous. A crepitatious swelling may be present in the shoulder, neck and back, and petechia may also be seen.


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While the clinical signs may suggest a BRSV infection, a definitive diagnosis is possible only with laboratory diagnostic aids (Baker et al., 1997). These findings include isolation of BRSV, detection of viral antigen, and demonstration of a seroconversion in diseased animals.

Viral isolations can be performed using nasal swabs, but presence of the virus in nasal mucous is of short duration. Laboratory specimens must be collected at the onset of the disease, although this may be difficult because clinical signs are frequently mild or undetectable during this time. Isolation of the virus in cell culture is both arduous and time-consuming, requiring 20-50 days (Wellemans, 1990).

Viral antigen can be detected in nasal mucus and lung specimens. A direct immunofluorescence (IF) test using monospecific hyperimmune serum marked with fluorescein isothiocyanate is frequently used. Small, round cells in which the fluorescence is confined to the cytoplasm will be detected in the nasopharyngeal specimens from BRSV-infected animals.

Paired sera can be used to test for convalescent seroconversion (Baker, 1993b). The initial specimen must be collected shortly after exposure to the virus, but if the clinical signs are mild, detection of BRSV may be difficult.

Serologic assays that have been used to detect antibodies to BRSV include the virus neutralization test, complement fixation and enzyme-linked immunosorbant assays (Ellis, 2013).

With the advent of polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and, to a lesser extent, enzyme immunoassay, serological testing has been superseded by rapid virus/antigen detection methods, notably PCR, in many laboratories (Ellis, 2013).

List of Symptoms/Signs

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SignLife StagesType
Cardiovascular Signs / Tachycardia, rapid pulse, high heart rate Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Digestive Signs / Anorexia, loss or decreased appetite, not nursing, off feed Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Digestive Signs / Decreased amount of stools, absent faeces, constipation Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Digestive Signs / Diarrhoea Cattle & Buffaloes:Calf Sign
Digestive Signs / Excessive salivation, frothing at the mouth, ptyalism Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Digestive Signs / Tongue protrusion Sign
General Signs / Cyanosis, blue skin or membranes Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
General Signs / Decreased, absent thirst, hypodipsia, adipsia Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
General Signs / Dehydration Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
General Signs / Exercise intolerance, tires easily Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
General Signs / Fever, pyrexia, hyperthermia Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
General Signs / Head, face, ears, jaw, nose, nasal, swelling, mass Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
General Signs / Inability to stand, downer, prostration Sign
General Signs / Lack of growth or weight gain, retarded, stunted growth Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
General Signs / Lymphadenopathy, swelling, mass or enlarged lymph nodes Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
General Signs / Petechiae or ecchymoses, bruises, ecchymosis Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
General Signs / Reluctant to move, refusal to move Sign
General Signs / Stiffness or extended neck Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
General Signs / Underweight, poor condition, thin, emaciated, unthriftiness, ill thrift Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
General Signs / Weight loss Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Musculoskeletal Signs / Back or thoracic crepitation, crepitus chest, ribs Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Musculoskeletal Signs / Head or neck crepitation, crepitus Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Nervous Signs / Dullness, depression, lethargy, depressed, lethargic, listless Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Ophthalmology Signs / Conjunctival, scleral, injection, abnormal vasculature Sign
Ophthalmology Signs / Conjunctival, scleral, redness Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Ophthalmology Signs / Lacrimation, tearing, serous ocular discharge, watery eyes Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Ophthalmology Signs / Purulent discharge from eye Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Pain / Discomfort Signs / Pain, chest, thorax, ribs, sternum Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Reproductive Signs / Abortion or weak newborns, stillbirth Cattle & Buffaloes:Heifer,Cattle & Buffaloes:Cow Sign
Reproductive Signs / Agalactia, decreased, absent milk production Cattle & Buffaloes:Cow Sign
Respiratory Signs / Abnormal lung or pleural sounds, rales, crackles, wheezes, friction rubs Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Respiratory Signs / Coughing, coughs Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Respiratory Signs / Dull areas on percussion of chest, thorax Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Respiratory Signs / Dullness on percussion sinus Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Respiratory Signs / Dyspnea, difficult, open mouth breathing, grunt, gasping Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Respiratory Signs / Increased respiratory rate, polypnea, tachypnea, hyperpnea Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Respiratory Signs / Mucoid nasal discharge, serous, watery Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages,Sheep & Goats:All Stages Sign
Respiratory Signs / Ping on percussion of chest, thorax Sign
Respiratory Signs / Purulent nasal discharge Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages,Sheep & Goats:All Stages Sign
Skin / Integumentary Signs / Rough hair coat, dull, standing on end Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Skin / Integumentary Signs / Skin edema Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign
Skin / Integumentary Signs / Subcutaneous crepitation, skin emphysema Cattle & Buffaloes:All Stages Sign

Disease Course

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The disease course of BRSV in calves can usually be divided into two phases. The first phase is often associated with mild respiratory signs such as cough, nasal discharge, conjunctivitis, lacrimation and a body temperature of 40-42.2°C (Baker, 1993b). These animals may become anorectic, mildly depressed, and have an increased respiratory rate. The animals will then appear to recover for varying periods of time. When the second phase of the disease sets in, signs of emphysema and dyspnea are more pronounced, sometimes accompanied by open-mouthed breathing and discomfort. The animals may suffer from bouts of dry coughs. Increased bronchial and broncho-vesicular sounds and fine crackles can be heard upon auscultation of the lungs. The body temperature of the animal will usually be normal at this time and nasal discharge will be minimal. Transient diarrhoea may be observed, but diarrhoea may be followed by constipation as the animal becomes dehydrated. Subcutaneous emphysema may be palpable at the shoulders and back. Because of severe dyspnea and abdominal breathing, calves may be unable to drink. Inter-mandibular oedema also has been reported. Although the mortality can be as high as 20%, cattle that survive the disease will usually recover within a few days to two weeks. Secondary bacterial pneumonia frequently occurs, suggesting that BRSV may suppress the immune system, as do other viruses involved in bovine respiratory disease complex (Baker et al., 1997). In 6-week-old calves, a bacterial superinfection may occur, but there are few to no emphysematous lesions. Among the most common symptoms in this age group are cough, high fever and serous or mucopurulent nasal discharge (Wellemans, 1990).


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BRSV spreads through a herd of cattle after an infected animal has been introduced. While there is no proven carrier state of this disease, the possibility remains that one exists. Sheep and goats can become infected by BRSV, but the epidemiology of the virus in small ruminants is not well documented. It is possible that humans involved in animal handling and care, especially veterinarians, can transmit BRSV among herds. After introduction of BRSV, the infection spreads rapidly within the herd and to neighbouring herds. BRSV manifests itself as a large outbreak of acute respiratory signs in a population of animals and affects both beef and dairy cattle. In the Northern Hemisphere, the most severe outbreaks of disease occur in autumn and winter due to harsh weather, close confinement of animals and lower levels of protective antibodies during these seasons (van der Poel et al., 1999; Hudson and Grotelueschen, 2000). Although disease outbreaks are more common in the autumn and winter, BRSV outbreaks may occur during any season.

The ability of BRSV to spread rapidly among cattle is due to transmission via aerosols and droplets of respiratory tract excretions. The routes by which an animal becomes infected are thought to be inhalation and ingestion. If an animal has a high antibody titre to BRSV, the virus can still replicate and be excreted, but clinical signs are usually mild or non-apparent. The stress associated with shipping and handling of animals may also play an important role in the severity of clinical signs (Fenner et al., 1993). It is important to bear in mind that BRSV is just one of the many predisposing factors and disease agents that contributes to the bovine respiratory disease complex.

Sarmiento-Silva et al. (2012) review the epidemiology and molecular epidemiology of BRSV worldwide and highlight the importance of viral evolution in virus transmission.

Impact: Economic

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The economic importance and impact of disease due to BRSV is difficult to assess because it can occur simultaneously with a number of pathogens. In combination with other pathogens, BRSV contributes to both bovine respiratory disease complex and bacterial pneumonia, both of which are economically devastating diseases. Economic losses include death of animals (e.g., 50% of all calf mortalities may be due to bacterial pneumonia) and decreased productivity (e.g., 7.5% reduction in weight gain). The long-term effects on the herd, such as increased morbidity and decreased production and performance may account for the largest economic losses (Radostits et al., 1994).

Zoonoses and Food Safety

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There are no known zoonotic or food safety risks associated with BRSV.

Disease Treatment

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Because of the secondary bacterial infections that are commonly associated with BRSV, anti-bacterial therapy is usually employed. A broad-spectrum antibiotic that will maintain prolonged levels in tissues is the most advantageous. Sustained-release sulfonamide boluses and long-acting tetracycline are both appropriate choices. Favourable results from corticosteroid therapy have been reported sometimes, but because of their immunosuppressive effects, corticosteroids cannot be recommended to treat undifferentiated bovine respiratory disease. Corticosteroid therapy may be a consideration in cattle that have severe signs of dyspnea in association with BRSV infection. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs do not cause immunosuppression, and their use has been recommended to reduce body temperature and the severity of other clinical signs. Ribivarin, an antiviral drug, is commonly used against HRSV, but no antiviral drugs are approved currently for the treatment of BRSV. The cost of Ribivarin makes it impractical to use in veterinary practice. Supportive therapy, including administration of fluids, is the most important component in the treatment of BRSV (Baker et al., 1997).

Prevention and Control

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As with most respiratory diseases in cattle, good management practices can help to control the spread of BRSV and the animals’ susceptibility to infection. Decreasing herd contact with external contamination and minimising exposure of herds to new pathogens are examples of ways to reduce the risk of infection (Dutil, 1999). Other examples of ways to decrease infection rate are disinfection of areas where cattle are housed and vaccination of herds (Ichijo et al., 1999). In the calf, passive immunity does not prevent infection with BRSV (Baker and Frey, 1985). However, it can decrease the severity of disease.

There are several commercially available vaccines to combat BRSV, most of them as combination vaccine with other antigens related to the bovine respiratory disease complex. A variety of intranasal and parenteral modified-live and inactivated vaccines have proven to be efficacious in robust challenge models (Brodersen, 2010).

The development of safe and effective BRSV vaccines has been hampered by the need to induce protective immunity within the first months of life, at a time when maternal antibodies can pose an obstacle to successful vaccination (Larsen et al., 2001; Sluijs et al., 2010) and the observation that vaccination can exacerbate BRSV disease (Schreiber et al., 2000; Antonis et al., 2003). A major focus of applied vaccine research today is the use of vaccines in young BRSV antibody-positive calves (Ellis et al., 2010).


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