Viruses are a problem whether you’re talking about hog herds or computers. You have a good understanding of the havoc they can wreck on your herd, but how prepared are you on the computer side? You may have missed the wrath of the “Melissa” or “Love Bug” virus scares this year, but there’s always a new one creeping around the corner.

These computer viruses, also referred to as bugs, are small programs that continue to reproduce and spread from one computer to another. They can eat away at your hard-drive space, potentially damaging your production and financial records.

If you end up with a virus on a personal computer, you’ve probably downloaded it from an e-mail or transferred it from an infected file. In most cases, you can't get a computer virus just by reading an e-mail, you have to download an infected file. However, some new versions merely have to be delivered to your e-mail box to begin causing some headaches.

If your computer system is networked with other users, you are even more vulnerable. That’s because typically if one person on the network gets a virus, it travels through to everyone else. If the infected files continue to be forwarded to others, your e-mail system will slow down or possibly crash.

“The biggest danger is that some of the viruses attempt to delete or overwrite files, which can cause you to lose information or stop your computer from working,” says Joe Partridge, system administrator, Premium Standard Farms. Depending on the virus, it can potentially alter or damage any type of file, software or hardware.

Your first defense is to install anti-virus software. If you don’t have it, buy it. This could be the best technology investment you ever make.

Two of the more popular virus software packages are Norton Anti-Virus (www.symantec.com) and McAfee Anti-Virus (www.mcafee.com). These and other virus-protection software sites provide detailed instructions on how to download and update your data files, remove a virus and provide background information on the most current viruses. Expect to pay $40 to $50 for a virus-protection program.

Once you have these programs, update the data files regularly – according to computer experts that means weekly. The programs will come with instructions on how to update the data files, or you can go to the program’s Web site and follow the instructions for updating your virus-protection files. Once you have the program, updates are free. If you hear about a new virus, Partridge recommends that you immediately update your data files.

“The big thing is to know where your e-mail is coming from,” says Michael Russell, technology coordinator, Carthage Veterinary Service, Carthage, Ill. Never open a file from someone you don’t know. The same holds true for downloading files from the Internet. Don’t download the file unless you’re familiar with its origin and purpose.

Be careful if you download files from the Internet. America On-Line recommends looking for a statement at the site saying that the files have been checked by an anti-virus program. Downloading from a legitimate site that checks its files for viruses is likely to be safe. If the files haven’t been checked, or if you’re not sure, then either download the file to a floppy disk and check it with your own anti-virus software or don’t download from that site at all.

“Regular backups are a big deal,” adds Russell. He recommends keeping at least two copies of your software and other important data on floppy disks. Be sure to store at least one of these in a fireproof and secure location, such as a safe-deposit box. There are lots of back-up options available, from tape cartridges to high-capacity disks. If a virus slips through your system, these back-up files will let you replace files destroyed by the infection.

AOL has a few other suggestions for protecting yourself against a computer virus:

Check your floppy disks: If you work on more than one computer, you could be carrying around a virus. Scan all of your floppy disks to make sure they’re safe. Consider e-mailing files between computers instead of exchanging them via floppy disk.

Spread the word: You may practice safe surfing, but does all of your family members and employees? Will they download a file and then run it before scanning it with an anti-virus program?

If you are unfortunate enough to contract a computer virus, Partridge recommends working with your computer support technician to locate and remove the virus from your computer. If you aren’t working with a support person, he recommends finding one at a local computer store or hire a a private consultant. He adds that telephone support is fine, but working with someone in person is usually much more beneficial.

Avoid hoaxes: There are a lot of Internet virus-hoax warnings being circulated via e-mail, with new ones popping up on a regular basis. Most of these hoaxes warn you of disaster if you read a certain kind of e-mail message and urge you to forward the message to everyone you know. Forwarding these messages also clogs up e-mail systems.

To avoid spreading these hoaxes and annoying other people, verify the authenticity of a virus before forwarding one of these messages. Your anti-virus software Web site will list all of the known viruses.

If you think your computer has a virus, AOL’s computer virus center recommends:

1. Stop using the computer: Never try to do normal work on an infected computer. Don’t try to delete files you thinkmay be infected – it’s unlikely that you’ll get rid of the virus that way. If possible, exit all of your programs and shut- down your computer normally, don’t just hit the “power” button.

2. Confirm the presence of a virus, then get rid of it: Just because you’re having a problem with your computer, program or file doesn’t mean that your computer has a virus. You may have problems with your hardware or software programs. Always run a virus detection program to identify and remove any viruses. For extra protection, consider running two different anti-virus programs to help ensure the virus is gone.

The bottom line is to use common sense when you’re dealing with computer files. If you take the necessary precautions, you can avoid getting bugged.