New York State Agriculture Commissioner Patrick Hooker has offered free genetic testing to any New York sheep owner in order to further advance the State's ongoing efforts to eradicate the ovine disease, scrapie.
Scrapie is a fatal, degenerative disease that affects the central nervous system of sheep and goats. It has been recognized in the world for more than 250 years and in the United States since 1947.
It is among a number of diseases classified as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies and caused by the ingestion of prions, infectious proteins.
The free testing is made available through the New York Ram Project, a plan aimed at enhancing flock resistance to scrapie in New York by conducting genetic testing on rams.
"The presence of scrapie in the United States has challenged our producers for years, costing them millions of dollars and forcing them to lose out on foreign markets," the Commissioner said. "By providing our producers with important genetic information on their rams, producers will be able to knowingly breed more resistance to scrapie in their flock, which will lead to healthier animals, more profitable producers and move us a step closer to eradicating this fatal and devastating disease."
Research has shown that certain genes in the DNA of sheep play a role in the development of scrapie.
A simple DNA test from a blood sample can reveal the resistance or susceptibility of sheep to scrapie.
Because of the larger number of progeny, rams have a greater impact for the development of scrapie resistance and are therefore the focus of New York Ram Project.
There is no genetic test available for goats at this time.
New York sheep producers who wish to have their rams tested should contact their local accredited veterinarian to schedule an appointment before December 31, 2008. The Department will reimburse veterinarians $15 to cover the cost of sampling and testing.
Funding for this program is provided by a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture's Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, Veterinary Services.
Funding is limited and offered on a first come, first served basis. Testing is limited to ten rams per flock.
Testing must be completed by Dec. 31.
In New York, the department has worked cooperatively with USDA APHIS to eradicate scrapie by issuing official identification tags to producers to use when selling animals from their flocks and communicating with producers and veterinarians on new information regarding scrapie and associated eradication efforts.
There are two other programs available to sheep owners that address the ongoing concern for scrapie.
The Scrapie Ovine Slaughter Surveillance program surveys cull animals at slaughter to identify infected flocks and helps fund the clean-up of infected flocks.
The Voluntary Scrapie Flock Certification Program monitors flocks over a period of time to certify flocks scrapie-free, enhancing the marketability of animals.
The name "scrapie" was coined from sheep trying to relieve the intense itching it causes, which results in sheep "scraping" off their wool. Sheep and goats can both be infected with scrapie at a very young age, but may not show symptoms of disease until two to six years of age. Symptoms may include weight loss, excessive itching, loss of coordination, and abnormal behavior.
In 2003, APHIS determined the prevalence of scrapie in mature U.S. cull sheep to be 0.2 percent or one positive out of 500 cull sheep.
Australia and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world to be recognized as scrapie-free.
New York State has 2,000 sheep farms with an inventory of approximately 74,000 sheep and lambs and 4,000 breeding rams, with a combined value of $10.8 million.
Cash receipts from the sale of sheep and lambs in New York in 2006 totaled $3.6 million.