Future outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease could be controlled with less dependence on culling cattle, after a breakthrough by scientists studying the virus.

Scientists from the Institute of Animal Health have discovered a 24-hour window within which it is possible to identify infected cattle before they show symptoms or can infect other animals.

The researchers, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the University of Edinburgh, are now investigating how best to exploit the findings to cut the number of animals that are culled during an outbreak.

Professor Mark Woolhouse who led the University of Edinburgh team said: “This new information pins down the critical times for the detection and control of the disease much more accurately.

“We now know that there is a window where, if affected cattle are detected and removed promptly, there may be no need for pre-emptive culling in the immediate area of an infected farm.

“This does make it very important that the disease is picked up quickly and farmers and others who care for livestock will continue to play a critical role,” Prof Woolhouse said.

“We have an opportunity to develop new test systems which can detect infected animals earlier and reduce the spread of the disease.”

Leader of the team at the Institute for Animal Health, Bryan Charleston, added: “Our discovery is good news and we hope that it will enable future refinement of the methods we use to control the virus in the UK and beyond.

“That said, there are a huge number of factors involved in decisions about controlling this serious and fast-spreading virus.

“There are a lot of other variables to consider before it is possible to come up with a new control strategy.

“We can identify infected cattle before they show signs of disease using tests in the laboratory. The next challenge is to do it in the field during an outbreak,” Dr Charleston said.

“This emphasises the need for practical tools for pre-clinical diagnosis and at present we don’t have an affordable, reliable, test to use on farms. Further research is vital.”

The full findings have been published in the journal Science.