Animal Health Canada: A bold initiative to improve Canada’s resiliency to contagious animal diseases

“Our current approach to risk management around animal health is too fragmented and too under-invested in prevention. The economic consequences of contagion are so enormous that we can’t tolerate the status quo. We have to bring public and private interests together to prepare for and prevent disaster. Just around the corner, diseases are lurking that could slam our beef and pork exports and devastate the rural economy. The whole system requires a new frame of thinking.”

With those cautionary words, Rory McAlpine set the stage for how Animal Health Canada (AHC) would be different. Rory emphasizes that he has retired, and speaks from his position as a champion for the initial concept of AHC and his earlier work with the National Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Council, which is the secretariat supporting the creation of AHC. Two examples illustrate his thoughts.

African swine fever (ASF) killed half of pigs in China either directly or through herd culls. It has not appeared in Canada but would take just one wild boar in a remote part of the country to bring $5 billion in pork exports to a standstill—overnight! You can bet that Canada isn’t ignoring this. An ASF Executive Management Board (on which Rory sat) is building a Pan-Canadian ASF Action Plan.

“But they’re doing this off the side of their desks,” points out Rory. “If we had AHC, we’d be better prepared in terms of biosecurity standards, surveillance, traceability, border measures, and maybe even a vaccine. Even with AHC, it would be especially challenging if both wildlife and farm animals were implicated because disease management in wildlife is mostly a provincial matter.”

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is one such feared example. It’s like mad cow disease but in deer, caribou, elk, etc., which are a food source in Indigenous communities and rural Canada. Some evidence exists that it could transmit to humans. There is no nationally-focused prevention-based strategy to handle it. See the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute’s report on CWD for a better idea of the imminent threat to Canadian agriculture. CWD represents an especially thorny challenge because risk management is all-encompassing, involving wildlife management, farm management, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, veterinarians several farm sectors and indigenous communities.

“The prion protein doesn’t care about borders,” says Rory. “It doesn’t care about mandates set in legislation about who’s responsible. COVID demonstrates the need for integrated governance when managing infectious diseases. Our current approach is too based on bureaucratic convenience and siloed action plans across industry. If more actors were prepared to share their authority and resources with a group like AHC, we could better manage these risks. CFIA certainly can’t do it alone.”

Although some stakeholders are fretting about the urgency related to ASF, AHC is not operational yet. The journey has been politically challenging, with several levels of government and multiple species groups all accustomed to autonomy. The final step to occur by 2022 is a legal public-private partnership with funding.

To get this far, potential models to adopt or adapt were examined. Animal Health Australia was considered a good fit: a public-private partnership that has been funded and given legal authority to manage animal health risks and the associated financial risk. That organization has a complicated formula to manage financial risk that considers variables like whether human health is implicated and whether the source of infection is foreign.

“We can learn from Australia and others,” states Rory. “If ASF strikes tomorrow, decisions have to be made immediately about zoning, liquidating herds and financial compensation. A response fraught with lobbying and hand-wringing is not ideal, and could compound the duration and severity of the crisis.”

This type of readiness provides opportunities to drive the development of genomics tools, whether related to tracing the origin of animals (“DNA fingerprinting”) or as part of developing less susceptible populations that reduce the impact of disease. Whether we use the “Swiss cheese model” or “rings of protection”, different approaches help build resilience into a system where redundancy has been eliminated as part of just-in-time efficiencies.

But isn’t animal health just one third of the equation? Shouldn’t we be talking about One Health?

“One Health is the ultimate prize,” Rory concedes. “An integrated One Health approach to managing public health and animal health in the face of zoonotic disease risks has to start with better coordination in each camp. We have world-leading scientific capacity, digital technologies and financial resources… now we need our decision-making structures to catch up. The lives of people and animals depend on it.”

For more background on Canada’s need for Animal Health Canada, see Rory’s article in the “transition binder” the Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute would give to the new minister for Agriculture, after the 2021 federal election.

“In that article, I use the example that it took SARS to stimulate the need to create the Public Health Agency of Canada, albeit lacking good integration with provincial public health authorities, as we see in the COVID response” says Rory. “And it took the tainted blood tragedy to fix our national blood safety system via Canadian Blood Services. We can learn from these examples in the space of animal health.”

But I’ve been using antibiotics for my animals all my life!


We know we should be more careful about appropriate antibiotic use for people, domestic and farm animals to avoid increasing antimicrobial resistance. But how exactly should we be more careful? And how come the solution isn’t the same for everybody? Gentec-associated researcher Ellen Goddard tackled some of the thorny questions around behaviour change at a UCalgary One Health webinar on November 17.

One Health has a very complex definition but we tend to think of it as relating to zoonotic diseases, especially diseases from wildlife. The principal drivers for the emergence of zoonoses are human activities such as agriculture, travel, trade and land use.

So almost everybody is affected by the definition but an office worker in downtown Toronto may not feel the same connection as someone who works directly with animals, be they farmed, domestic or wild. That very context colours our approach to potential solutions.

Farmers, for example, are directly involved. If you’re a farmer, you’re probably convinced that you’re behaving in the best way possible to protect your animals, the environment and the health of your family. You’ve learned and studied as much as you can from your neighbours, extension agents and vets. So if somebody shows up on your doorstep saying that you need to change your habits around antibiotics completely—and you’ve always used antibiotics successfully to protect your animals—that idea is not going to go down well. That may be because you don’t fully understand the connection between antibiotics and the development of antimicrobial resistance. Or because you don’t see that the actions you take on your one farm also affect the soil, waterways and wildlife far beyond it.

So complexity is one of the fundamental things that discourages behaviour change.

Another is that, at the end of the day, we are dealing with people, individuals and society’s approach to the use and care of animals. We all have views about animals: they are created in our youth, through cultural ties, schooling, etc.—and they almost never change. If we’re raised to believe that animals need protection and care, that applies to all animals. If we find out that they are being mistreated or subjected to actions that we interpret as mistreatment, we are likely to respond very strongly.

For example, culling animals is one of the most effective ways of limiting the spread of disease, whether to protect domestic or farm animals, wildlife or humans. As scientists, this is obvious. That’s what the data say. But if half of society has strong, fundamental, ethical beliefs about not mistreating animals and the authorities are going to cull a large number of wildlife, you can bet the reaction will be angry and hostile. This is a perfectly rational response from people who believe protecting animals is ethical. And they think they’re doing the right thing.

An example of this is the badger cull in the UK. Badgers are a protected species, so the public can’t get its head around the idea of culling them because they are bringing tuberculosis onto livestock farms. Badgers need protecting, period. That said, the public supports vaccinating the badgers (this is doable). On the other hand, farmers are desperate for protection from this disease. They want the culls. Once again, the data show that, in areas of the UK where culling has taken place, the rate of cattle infection from tuberculosis is lower. So farmers say, “See? Culling works.” Then the decision falls into political hands, and citizens feel undermined because their position, contribution and voice aren’t valued.

An example closer to home is chronic wasting disease (CWD) in cervids. Deer are far removed from most people’s lives these days, so you’d think the public would have no interest in culling decisions. The Alberta government tried that—and there was a huge pushback. People simply didn’t like the idea of killing huge numbers of deer and elk. Setting the cull aside for a moment, CWD hasn’t been shown to affect livestock or humans but we don’t know if that will change or what the long-term implications are. Farmers say they like the idea of deer and wildlife on their property. They worry that if CWD is transmissible, they would have to act to stop the deer/human/animal interaction. They like that their farms are private property, not accessible to others. It makes them feel they can control some aspects of their environment. So we have to understand what motivates people to change their behaviour when an issue of animal health may affect the public.

From our surveys, we know that everybody opposes taking NO action; but hunters, outfitters and the public differ hugely on the type of action to take. If you make your livelihood on something that will be restricted, you will feel more strongly than the said office worker in Toronto. So individual behaviour influences the success of any One Health strategy. If we don’t come up with multifaceted solutions, we will fail because, particularly in the context of animals, people have strong feelings that drive whether they accept or reject solutions.

That’s why it’s so important to do behavioural modelling to test strategies that may be successful. We need to understand what drives people’s behaviour, pick the strategies that encourage change, and tailor them to groups and individuals on the front lines. This will be essential if we’re going to apply One Health in a way that benefits the world to come.