MU’s expert on so-called mad cow disease says it is “an almost nonexistent risk for people.”
“The risk of transmission is very, very small,” said Dr. Jeffrey Tyler, a professor of veterinary medicine and surgery in the food animal division.
He has worked on spongiform diseases for the past 10 years and helps educate Columbians on mad cow disease. Formally known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, the disease, kills cattle and has been linked in humans to variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare and fatal neurodegenerative condition.
Importance of animal health
After a single case was found in Washington state in December, Tyler led a forum to air community concerns about the American meat supply, emphasizing that the U.S. Department of Agriculture and importation regulations significantly lower the chance of getting mad cow disease in the United States.
Tyler prefers to stress the more important factors of keeping farmers and veterinarians educated about animal health and food safety. He spends his days doing just that — teaching MU graduate and veterinary students how to care for animals used in the livestock industry such as cows, sheep, goats and swine. The practice, Tyler believes, is a dying art.
“There’s a real sense among food animal educators that we aren’t training enough vets to serve farms, that the career may be undervalued and it may be putting both the food supply and the nation’s health at risk,” he said.
Tyler’s career is largely an extension of his upbringing on a shorthorn cattle farm in northern Wisconsin. He planned to continue to work on the family farm, but when Tyler was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, his father sold it to start another business.
It was then that Tyler began to look at how he could remain in agriculture, finally deciding on veterinary school at the University of Minnesota.
Today, any flat surface in his office at the MU Veterinary Teaching Hospital is stacked with loose papers, books, folders and memos. Photographs of his wife and six children hang on the wall. A bag of dog food, shoved in a corner, serves as a shelf for yet another box of papers. It was given to him as a sample but never made it home to the dog.
His goals sound loftier than his jeans and scuffed work boots might suggest: “I put shoes on kids, and I feed the world.”
Protecting the food supply
What he means by feeding the world, Tyler said, is that through teaching and research he can help foster a safe, wholesome, inexpensive food supply. And while many American farmers are successful, he said that farming incomes are substantially lower than urban incomes.
“ ‘To put shoes on kids’ is trying to increase the income of people who are really some of the poorest people in the country — farmers,” he explained.
Former MU veterinary hospital resident Dusty Nagy, now a clinical assistant professor of veterinary clinical medicine at the University of Illinois, has worked with Tyler in many arenas. While she attests to a range of his abilities, she respects most his passion for farmers.
“He focuses his research on clinically relevant diseases, things that can really help the bottom line of the farmer,” Nagy said. She said she thinks that while he is professionally headstrong, he is an extremely caring person.
Service to society
Tyler, 46, spends six months of his year in clinical rounds at the teaching hospital and one month on site at farms. He packs up the vet school’s ambulancelike truck used to carry large animals and heads out to the farms with students. He said it’s critical that veterinarians know the importance of service and that farmers know their value to society.
He spends the other six months teaching and doing research, part of which is evaluating a retroviral cattle disease, bovine leukosis, as a model for HIV prevention in humans.
Tyler’s wife and colleague, Dr. Carolyn Henry, is an associate professor of veterinary oncology and director of the Scott Program,which supports teaching, research and service in small animal oncology. She said she sees Tyler’s work ethic as part of his character.
“He is uncompromising in his values, no matter what,” Henry said.
Tyler put it another way: “Cow doctors are true believers.”
A true believer he might have to be. A few weeks ago at the vet hospital, Tyler jumped into a large-animal truck that was on fire so the flames wouldn’t spread to the building or other vehicles.
Although he acknowledged that the back of the truck was hot and filled with smoke, Tyler insisted that driving it away was not a big deal.
“I was just doing my job,” he said.