What Is Mad Cow Disease?

(Last Updated On: January 7, 2020)

What Is Mad Cow Disease?

If you’ve ever heard of mad cow disease, someone might have also told you to stop eating beef out of fear of this condition. Luckily for you, it’s actually impossible for humans to get mad cow disease. Well, sort of. There is a slight variant of mad cow disease that you can get. Which basically means you can kind of get mad cow disease. But let’s back up a little–what is mad cow disease in the first place, and why is it an issue? 

No, we won’t be talking about angry cows today.

What Is Mad Cow Disease?

We should start by clarifying that “mad cow disease” isn’t the official name. It’s actually called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)–but “mad cow” is easier to say.

Mad cow disease is a neurodegenerative disease that afflicts cattle. There is no surviving once a cow is infected, but a cow with BSE won’t be symptomatic for a handful of years (4-5) before dying. There’s not much of a way to figure out what killed them either, save for looking at their brains. Something you can’t really do while the cow is alive.

Symptoms of mad cow disease include loss of muscle control, dramatic behavior changes, hypersensitivity, and loss of coordination. Loss of muscle control normally affects how the unfortunate cow walks. Behavior changes tend to manifest in anxiety and nervousness as well. 

Anyway, symptoms get progressively worse and worse over the course of a handful of weeks or months. Then our sad bovine friend falls into a coma and dies. 

How Do Cows Get BSE?

By nature, mad cow disease is a prion disease, which is not good. We’ll explain.

You might know of proteins, which are a little more than just that powder your friend Chad uses to bulk up. They’re quite important, and it turns out they can get misfolded. That’s all a prion is–a misfolded protein. More or less, it’s just a little bug in the code that makes you, you. 

Once you get prions, they have the ability to transmit their misfolded structure to other normally folded proteins. Then it’s a really bad time. 

Anyway, it’s easier to get prions by consuming brains–or through cannibalism. Which is one of many reasons why people generally do not eat other people. We suggest you read into kuru disease if you want to know more about human cannibalism and prion disease. 

It’s easier to get prions via cannibalism due to their nature to transmit their structure. So if you eat prion-ized meat, you get prions. Sometimes you can just sorta develop prions spontaneously. Have fun with that morbid crisis.

So you can kinda see where this is going. In the UK, cows were fed this thing called meat and bone meal. It’s basically that super dystopian bug-ration-meat-food-bar you see in sci-fi media. Except we feed it to cows and not people. If you’re guessing “there was cow in the dystopian food ration,” you’d be right. It’s suspected that some cows spontaneously got prions, and were then proxy fed to other cows through this process. Hence, an outbreak of mad cow disease.

Humans and Cow Prions

Fun fact–because prions are technically the same thing as the meat, you can’t really cook it out of the beef. 

Which is why it’s kind of scary when you take into account there’s a prion disease transmissible from cows to people. It’s called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Like in cows, it’s suspected that the incubation period for this disease can take years. It’s also super fatal. Your life expectancy once you’re symptomatic is around 13 months. 

We’re bringing this up as a side by side, because you guessed it, the UK had an outbreak of vCJD around the same time mad cow disease cropped up. Heck, it was so bad the EU banned the export of beef out of the UK.

Since then there have been a handful of beef bans from a lot of countries and a lot of new disposal programs for beef. Especially when it comes to stuff like brain tissue and eye tissue (among others), which have a higher chance of transmitting prions. 

The moral of the story: stay careful with your meat out there. 

If you feel further need to get cows out of your life, do it in Scrabble here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.