Disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian. I cannot diagnose or prescribe. No information contained here or elsewhere on this website is meant to replace appropriate veterinary or professional opinion. I can only share my own experiences, practices, and opinions — I cannot give veterinary or medical advice. No statements here have been evaluated by the FDA ,USDA, ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ, or etc.
I have mentioned various diseases and management practices on other pages of this website, but I thought it would be best to give some of the most important and devastating diseases their own spot here for anyone who is unfamiliar with them.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of goat ailments. There are a number of afflictions that can impact goats, and they have varying levels of consequence and frequency of occurrences. Nor is this a complete compendium of information about the diseases I have listed. Not only is there much I don’t know or fully understand about these diseases, but many of them are not fully understood at large by the goat community due to lack of research information or awareness. Giving in-depth analysis of individual diseases isn’t my intent. Instead, I want to give a brief overview of each “big” disease to whet your appetites and make you, at the very least, aware that these issues are out there. I want this to offer a resource for those who may have come to my site not knowing anything yet at all.
Please take the time to do your own research. Dairy Goat Info has valuable information on these diseases, as do the goat section at Homesteading Today, Tennessee Meat Goats, and WADDL. These sites are where I have gotten most of my information from, as well as various conversations with individuals over the years. A quick Google search will reveal even more sources of information. It’s important to read other sources not only to gain a deeper knowledge base and understanding, but also because — as you will see as you start digging — there are many different opinions about these diseases and how they should be handled. It’s important to see the many different sides in order to come to your own informed opinion. I cannot think for you.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, which is especially true of these diseases as they have no cure. With that in mind, I have also included information on how best to prevent these diseases from ever entering your herd in the first place. It is much better to avoid these diseases rather than try to eradicate them from a herd.
CAE or Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis:
This is one of the most well-known infectious diseases in dairy goats, yet still not every breeder or buyer knows about it, tests for it, or even cares about it, unfortunately. CAE has had the most research poured into it. It is often compared to HIV in humans, in that the virus can be present but dormant in a goat for many years, or it can be present and immediately cause symptoms. CAE is passed from goat to goat through milk or, less often, through blood. There is no cure for CAE.
When a goat is symptomatic with CAE, it can present in two forms. One is the arthritic form, which affects adult goats most often. It causes arthritis-like symptoms that vary in severity. The joints of the animal will swell and become painful, most often in the knees, and can cause them to walk on their knees due to a loss of range of motion. Some goats with this form will be debilitated while others will be affected less and experience mild symptoms. The goat will not be active, might lie down a lot, and will go down in condition. CAE in this form also affects milk production and can cause hard udders and little or no milk production.
The neurotic form most often affects kids under a year of age. It causes swelling in the spine which leads to lameness that develops into paralysis over a period of days or weeks. Inability to stand and weakness in joints in an otherwise healthy kid are the first signs. *Note that selenium deficiency also causes leg weakness, however selenium deficiency will usually cause the kid to be born with weak limbs and the condition will improve with treatment (selenium and splints) whereas CAE will get worse rather than improving.
The great news is that CAE is easy to prevent. There is a very reliable ELISA test for CAE that tests for antibodies in the goat’s blood. The test can be done through Biotracking or WADDL. Always buy your stock from tested herds, and look at their test results with your own eyes — don’t just take their word for it. Don’t rescue a goat because you feel sorry for it. Don’t assume that because a goat looks healthy that it is. Always buy tested goats who are proven negative for these diseases.
Once you have your own herd, you can test them periodically to be sure that CAE stays out of your herd. Many people test all their goats annually, some only the does. I personally test my whole herd excluding wethers, but not strictly every year. I always test when I add any new animals, after the new goats have been tested negative twice and introduced to the herd. If you are adding new animals to your herd, even from a trusted breeder, it’s best to test the new animal again and do a whole herd test after adding them.
CAE can be managed in a herd…but it is tricky. If you find yourself with a CAE-positive herd, don’t give up hope. It is possible to breed your animals and replace your stock with their CAE-negative kids, and there are herds that were once positive that are now completely clean. The way this is done is that kids are taken from their dams immediately at birth. The does are not allowed to touch their kids, and the kids are bottle fed with milk that has come from negative goats or with cows milk from the store. Pasteurized positive milk can also be used, however bottle feeding with pasteurized CAE-positive milk can cause false positive tests in the kids. The kids are tested when they are six months or older and negative animals are then kept separate from positive to prevent cross contamination. (Sometimes even adult goats will nurse.) In order for this to be successful, you must be present at the birth and prevent the kids from nursing.
Some breeders chose to pull and bottle feed all kids, even those with negative dams, as a preventative measure. I personally see no point in this and believe that it will do more harm than good to not allow kids to nurse, especially the colostrum, from negative does.
CAE milk is believed to be safe for human consumption, and CAE does not reside in the ground after a positive animal has lived on it. However, I would personally be uncomfortable drinking CAE positive milk.
CL or Caseuous Lymphadentitis:
CL, in my opinion, is the worst disease affecting goats. It is prevalent in pet and meat herds, because in pet herds there is a lack of knowledge and in meat herds the goats are seen as terminal and therefore it’s considered to be “not a big deal.” However, CL is an incurable and highly contagious zoonotic disease, meaning that it can be transferred across species. Even humans can contract it, though it is rare. In humans the affected lymph nodes must be removed surgically, and I have read that it is a painful disease in humans. It is imperative that goat owners and breeders be aware of and vigilant about CL to protect themselves and their herds. Do not treat it lightly simply because it is not a “terminal” disease.
CL cannot be cured or treated. It is a chronic illness that causes abscesses filled with a thick, cheese-like, white to yellow pus. The abscesses most often show up around the external lymph nodes of the goat, which are located around the goat’s face, upper neck, lower neck above the shoulder, above the udder, and upper hind leg. The process is caused by the goat’s lymph system attacking the CL bacteria and pushing out of the body so that it cannot harm the goat. Abscesses can also occur internally, including around organs or inside the udder. When internal, it can be passed through contaminated milk or exude in the lungs. CL is highly infectious, and it is passed through the exude from abscesses. It enters the body through cuts or orally. Even flies can transmit it from animal to animal by landing on an open abscess.
Though there is contradicting information about how long CL lasts in the soil, the longest period of time I have seen from a reputable veterinary source was 2 years in a semi-arid climate. The WSU lab (WADDL) states that it lives up to 8 months in the soil. Hearsay on the internet will often state that it can live indefinitely in the ground, but I question the accuracy of this and have yet to see a reputable documentation of this. Should land be contaminated, disinfection of the soil includes killing and burning any plant life, treating the the ground with a strong trisodium phosphate detergent, solarizing it, and applying a heavy amount of agricultural lime. Alternatively, the top two layers of soil can be removed.
The best prevention is to buy from clean herds. Unfortunately, tests can be inaccurate and should not be solely relied upon. Visit the herd from which your animal is coming if at all possible and keep your eyes open and looking for signs of CL (abscesses or abscess scars) on the animals in the herd. Ask the breeder about their prevention methods. This should include purchasing animals only from clean herds, quarantining new goats and retesting before introduction to the herd, and basic biosecurity practices (see below) that limit the risk of spreading disease.
To prevent non-CL abscesses, keep your facilities as free of things that can injure goats as possible. Note your vaccine locations so that you always know that if a lump shows up after a vaccine what it is from. When vaccinating, be sure to fully break through the skin layer — and to not go into the skin on the other side — and administer the vac into the space in the “tent.” Vaccines given in between skin layers often cause abscesses.
Blood tests are available for CL through Washing Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (WADDL). However, there is a risk of false negatives in infected animals. The nature of CL is that the bacteria is taken and isolated by the lymph system, meaning that a positive animal might not have the bacteria in its blood and test negative, especially if it does not have an active abscess. For this reason, you can’t rely on blood tests as your sole method of prevention.
Draining and testing the pus from within an abscess is the most accurate way to test for CL.
In my opinion, CL cannot be safely managed in a herd and infected animals should be euthanized. However, you shouldn’t assume every abscess on a goat is CL and immediately destroy it. Abscesses and swellings that resemble them can be caused by many different things other than CL. Watch your herd carefully for abscesses, and if you see one immediately separate and quarantine that goat. Have a vet remove the abscess intact or drain it and collect the exude (being sure to treat the abscess and exude as a biohazard). You can then have the pus tested for the CL bacteria (exude tests are the most accurate and you are highly unlikely to get a false result on a pus test).
Do not drink/use milk from CL positive goats. Abscesses can occur in the udder and taint the milk.
Johnes Disease (pronounced “yo-knees”):
Johnes is a devastating disease in ruminate species (including goats and cattle), but is also one of which goat breeders and owners are least aware.
Johnes causes damage to the intestinal tract of the goat making it unable to absorb nutrients from the food that it eats. It is a chronic wasting disease. When a goat starts showing symptoms (which can be years after infection), it will start to lose condition. They will eventually become emaciated and weak before finally dying of what is essentially starvation despite having adequate food provided. Weight loss, loss of appetite, depression/listlessness, and chronic heavy parasite loads are common symptoms. Diarrhea can also be seen as the disease enters later stages, however diarrhea is more commonly a symptom in cattle than in goats. Usually goats will not show symptoms until well after they have been shedding the disease, which can live in the soil for many years.
Johnes is passed through milk and feces. The infected goats shed the disease through their feces, and previously clean animals get it when they eat the food that has been contaminated. There is no cure for Johnes disease. There is nothing to rid the soil of it other than indeterminate amounts of time.
The best prevention is, again, to avoid buying infected animals. This is more difficult to do, however, because of how long Johnes can incubate without symptoms and how few people test. Blood tests are available, and testing is still recommended. Fecal testing is very accurate in heavy shedders, but it can take years for infected animals to actually shed the disease enough for it to show in the fecal test.
Other important preventative methods are to raise feeders above poop-height, use rotational grazing to make browse taller (which also helps with barberpole worm, discussed below), and to not share your pasture with untested cattle or put goats on pasture where cattle have been housed. These methods will only lessen the impact if you already have infected animals, however; they will not prevent it entirely.
There is no real way to manage Johnes once you have it other than to start over with a clean herd on clean land. It is said that if you have one infected animal testing positive you probably have ten that haven’t started shedding or become clinical yet…so if one goat in a herd has it, it’s highly likely your others do as well. That makes it very difficult to weed out of a herd. If your goats are just pets, you do also have the option of allowing them to live out their days until they become symptomatic.
It is thought that Johnes is not transmittable to humans but this disease is still being studied. Some studies show a possible link between Johnes and Chrones disease, but this is not substantiated yet. Pasteurization may not kill all the Johnes bacteria, so milk from positive animals should be thrown out.
Barber pole worm or Haemonchus Contortus (HC):
Though goats are susceptible to any number of parasites, barber pole worms or HC are the most dangerous and prevalent in adult goats. Though they are not technically a disease, they are a blight and are fatal if a goat gets a severe case and is left untreated. Goats will always have some level of parasites at all times, but it is when the level spikes above what their immune system can handle that they will become anemic and possibly die. Our goal as goatherds is to breed goats with naturally high resistance who can maintain their condition despite low levels of parasites. It is impossible to completely rid internal parasites from livestock.
HC are so hard to manage because of their ability to go dormant in conditions that aren’t right for them. They can “sleep” in your goat’s gut all year until hot and wet conditions come around and bam, they go to breeding and sucking. HC feed on blood; this is what causes the anemia in affected animals. They suck the blood directly from the wall of the infected goat’s stomach. While they are active, they mate and lay larvae which then pass through the goat’s system only to mature and reinfect them by being eaten by the goat either off of plants or from contact with other food. The HC are also clever in that they can detect the hormonal changes in a pregnant doe and plan their own reproduction accordingly so that as soon as a doe kids her environment is flooded with HC larvae which will then reinfect her and her kids, thus continuing the cycle.
Symptoms of infestation include pale mucous membranes (eyelids) and, in severe cases, bottle jaw. The inner membranes of the eyelids should be a dark, bright pink or red. Pale or white membranes indicate anemia which indicates HC. See the FAMANCHA chart to the left.
Bottle jaw is a swelling of the neck directly underneath the chin. It is not an abscess, but rather a collection of fluid. In some cases the bottle jaw will appear in the evening only to be better in the morning…yet worse again the next evening. This is because the fluid tends to collect as the goat has its head down to graze throughout the day, but will sometimes redistribute overnight. Bottle jaw indicates a very severe infestation and action should be taken right away.
Other symptoms are weight loss, weakness, and sometimes loose stool. If a goat goes down from anemia it may be too late. Closely monitor your goats FAMANCHA levels and general condition, because generally by the time they are showing overt signs of infestation they are already heavily loaded. Because goats are prey animals, they hide illnesses for as long as possible.
Aside from keeping the goats condition and immune system healthy in general through proper management and stress prevention, the best prevention is to utilize proper mineral supplementation (see below), have browse above 4″ tall (that’s as high as the larvae can climb), rotate pastures (running another species after the goats if possible, but only if they are free from diseases that can be transmitted to goats and do not share common internal parasites), elevating feeders, keeping water clean, and keeping housing clean.
Proper mineral levels are necessary to prevent HC overload, with copper being the most important. Copper, for reasons not fully understood, helps creat an inhospitable enviornment for the parasite. Proper copper levels also improve their immune systems and therefore their natural ability to ward off parasites. A good loose mineral with 1700-1800ppm of copper should be available at all times, and in most situations additional copper in the form of copper oxide rods should be given every 4-6 months as well.
Only use a dewormer when a goat needs it. Dosing animals when they do not need it creates worms that are resistant to deworming medications. It is best to check FAMANCHA levels, perform fecal tests, and keep an eye on overall condition and only deworm as necessary. Be forewarned that Safeguard, which is most likely the only goat-labeled dewormer you will find, is not effective. It has been overused and resistance is widespread. There are many other off-label options that are more effective, such as moxidectin and ivermectin. Dosage amounts as well as other options are listed at Dairy Goat Info. Feed-through dewormers are not recommended.
HC, like most parasites in goats, take advantage of stress in the animal to build their populations. Any stress such as moving, mating/rut, illness, injury, or kidding can make a goat more susceptible to the parasite, so monitor goats especially closely during these times.
Please be aware that not every case of anemia is HC, and there are many other internal parasites that goats can pick up. Having a fecal done by your vet or doing one yourself will tell you exactly what you are dealing with.
Managing parasites successfully really means preventing them as much as is physically possible and staying on top of things so that mild infestations don’t become severe. It is far better to monitor your goats closely and use preventative measures than to try to bring one back from the brink of death.
If you find yourself with an anemic goat, particularly one with very pale eyelids or bottle jaw, there are steps you can take to save it. First isolate the goat in an area you can keep very clean, such as a kidding stall, to prevent re-infestation. Dose with an effective dewormer. If the goat is severely anemic, you can also treat it with Red Cell and vitamin B injections to help it rebuild its blood count. Anemic animals need their immune system to be supported. I would also give a copper bolus unless the animal has had one recently.
If the animal is extremely infested, do not give a heavy dose of dewormer and do not worm over and over again. You can kill the animal by shocking its system or making it bleed out because of all the holes in its gut that will be left when the worms die and release. Sometimes in a very severe case it is actually better to use a less effective medicine first to kill off part of the load, then hit them with a stronger dewormer later. Cases this severe are rare when proper management is used and you stay on top of things, but they do happen sometimes, often due to parasites which have built a resistance to medication.
There is a very good article on anemia in goats here.
General Biosecurity Habits:
I explicate my personal biosecurity habits on this page. This is a suggested general protocol for those who chose to attend events with their goats.
If you show or go to fairs, your goats should not have any contact whatsoever with other goats. People should not be allowed to touch your goats without disinfecting their hands first. People should not be allowed in the goats’ pen without clean clothes and disinfected shoes. Ideally you should reserve two or three more pens than you need so that you have goat-free space on either side of your goats. Pens should be disinfected before putting goats into them. Bring your own bedding, food bowls, water troughs, etc. Do not share supplies of any kind with another herd. Better yet, house your goats in your own trailer and not fool with the show pens at all.
Never share sterile things like needles between animals, whether you practice a closed herd or not. Similarly, disinfect anything that will be in contact with blood such as tattoo guns. Practice the same general cleanliness habits you would if you were in a house with a sick person: frequently wash your hands, be sure things are kept clean, and wear gloves when working with blood or any suspect animal. Pasteurize or throw out milk from any suspect animal until you can be sure it is clean. Disinfect shoes and change clothes before interacting with your herd or going into their living space if you have been near other goats. Have any visitors disinfect their shoes, wear clean clothes, and disinfect their hands as well, and do not allow visitors into the living quarters of your goats.
As always, buy from clean tested herds, quarantine new stock, and test new and established stock. Quarantine is useful to prevent the introduction of new or resistant parasites to your original herd as well.