Here I broach the basics all goat owners should be aware of, but I recommend you purchase a good veterinary guidebook, like Harwood’s Goat Health and Welfare or Dunn’s The Goatkeeper’s Veterinary Book. I am not qualified to advise on health issues and would recommend registering with your local veterinary clinic and consulting them immediately if you see signs of ill health. My aim is to make you aware of basic health needs and how to spot potential illness. Goat illnesses can be complex due to their complicated digestive system. After hooves, I will look at rumen issues, parasites, vaccinations, symptoms, first aid and veterinary contact.
Every owner needs to learn to trim their goats’ hooves. They need regular trimming in most environments. Originally a mountain animal, the hoof grows quickly to replace what would be worn away on rocks. Unless your goats have a good area of rock or concrete to play on, you will need to trim off excess hoof every 3 months (I find every 8 weeks easier). If the hoof wall grows too long, it will buckle under. Mud and micro-organisms can get trapped and the foot become infected, or even eaten away by bacteria causing foot-rot.
This video (1) shows you how to trim away the excess horn around each toe, removing mud and opening up any gaps that mud may get stuck in. Such gaps allow foot-rot bacteria to hide out and eat away the softer heel and sole: any holes need opening up to the air. You may need to trim down the heel if it does not wear down naturally; otherwise it may grow between the toes and cause them to splay. The softer, rubbery heel and sole are like dead skin and careful trimming does not hurt. However, below the surface, the softer, pink flesh is sensitive and can bleed, so trim away a little at a time and stop if you see pink. If it bleeds use an antiseptic foot-spray.
Scald is soreness between the toes and can be resolved through spraying with antibiotic spray. Bacteria may combine and eat into the soft heel and inner toe causing foot-rot, with its characteristic putrid smell. Opening the wound up to the air and spraying with antibiotic spray will kill the bacteria and allow healing.
Founder causes hot swelling and deformed hooves which can take years to heal and trim back into a comfortable shape. It is caused by long term use of feed which is too easily digestible, such as cereals. It may also occur following acidosis, a serious digestive disorder that occurs if a goat eats too much grain at once. Acidosis can readily happen if a goat gets into feed bins or steals poultry feed: goats are very competitive and your other livestock won’t get a look in if the goat is around!
The rumen is an efficient but complex organ, so knowing how to check for problems is essential. Check rumen function daily, and be aware of different causes that can lead to diarrhea. Failure to act promptly can result in severe problems, even death.
The rumen is positioned on the goat’s left behind the ribs. Healthy goats eat fibre regularly and chew the cud while they are resting. They frequently burp and rumble. If your goat is off her food or you worry she is not ruminating, listen to her left flank: you should hear gurgling. If she is not chewing the cud and her rumen doesn’t rumble, her condition can quickly become serious and a veterinary consultation is recommended.
After pasturing the abdomen will look round (especially on the left side); you might even think she looks fat or pregnant. Her rumen is full and normally she will now rest and digest. If, however, it is painfully distended, hard, especially near the spine, she is not gurgling or chewing, she is acting sick or in pain, or kicking her belly, I would worry about bloat. Bloat is caused by an obstruction or acidosis, where excessive gas is trapped due to gorging on rich feed, like legumes, grain or pellets. Massaging the rumen firmly until she burbs may help to relieve it. However, this is a serious condition and you should call in the veterinary doctor urgently, as death can occur quickly. Click the following links for further advice on acidosis and bloat.
Goats can pick up infection by intestinal worms, liver fluke and other parasites from pasture. Gastric worm larvae hatch from eggs in the droppings of goats and sheep. The best method to avoid parasitic worms is to rotate pastures so that they don’t graze from areas with recent droppings. A field can be split into paddocks with fencing or electric netting, parts of which are enclosed off to allow the land to rest and the larvae to die.
All goats carry some intestinal worms and, under normal circumstances, can cope with the burden. However, as they naturally eat vegetation above the ground (bushes and tall weeds), they are not as resistant as sheep, which have adapted better to eating from the ground. At vulnerable times (after kidding, when sick or stressed), goats are more susceptible to succumb to infections.
Depending on the kind of worm, there are various symptoms. In Europe, roundworms are common and the first sign is soft, shapeless faeces, rather than the normal dry pellets. Later signs are thinness and a dry, brittle coat. In the States, barber pole worm is common and causes anaemia, leading to poor health. However, a variety of different worms are active worldwide.
Smart dosing to avoid resistance to wormers
Due to widespread use of de-worming medication, many parasites have become resistant to available veterinary wormers. This means we have to change our approach to parasite control. Veterinary researchers are recommending a return to pasture rotation and incorporation of alternative products. The following methods are an attempt to prevent resistant strains from spreading in our pastures. New practices are now being adopted, and here is a brief summary:
- only use medication if an animal has an infection (do not use preventatively);
- only medicate the animal with the infection (not the whole herd);
- request a fecal egg count before deciding to medicate and before moving the herd to fresh pasture;
- check lower eyelid colour for signs of anaemia;
- use the same medicine while it is still effective (parasites are not resistant to it) rather than changing every year;
- avoid under-dosing: it is better to give a little too much than too little, as the strong parasites will go on to breed more resistant offspring: use twice the amount used for sheep (except for levamisole, which must be measured carefully to avoid poisoning);
- always use an orally-administered medicine: injections and pour-on are not very effective for goats;
- use a cannula attachment to your dosing syringe to ensure all the medicine goes down where it should: it makes the job much easier too;
- reduce feed intake for 12 hours before dosing, or dose again the next day;
- new stock must be quarantined until their egg count is acceptable; dose with 2 different class of wormer simultaneously to ensure all strains are eliminated.
- if your wormer no longer works, change to a different class of medicine. The parasite will also be resistant to all products in the same class.
There are currently four classes: benzimidazoles, macrocyclic lactones (avermectins), levamisole and monepantel (not yet widely available). As there is widespread resistance to the first three, the latest will probably be reserved for severe cases only. To avert these issues, let’s use wormers only when necessary and then be sure to dose well.
It is important to know which diseases are prevalent to plan how best to avoid them through management or vaccination. Some blood testing and vaccination will be obligatory to help prevent nationwide spread of disease.
First aid supplies
It’s a good idea to keep a stock of some medical supplies for emergency use. Here are some suggestions of products I have found handy:
- antiseptic spray (purple spray) for cuts;
- antibacterial spray for use on infections;
- bicarbonate of soda to prevent bloat and the effects of new, fresh pasture–they will lick it from a bowl or add it to their feed (only temporarily so that they favour it over salt and minerals, which they also need);
- Epsom salts for a footbath to sooth swollen joints or painful feet due to founder;
- activated charcoal for accidental poisoning or grain overload;
- bandages, compresses;
- electrolite: honey, ground oats and bicarbonate of soda with warm water to make up an emergency energy drink if the goat is weak and not eating, or just after kidding;
- rumen flora: a sachet of dried electrolite and bacteria to repopulate the rumen after a digestive upset (buy online or at the veterinary clinic).
- rumen restarter: a sachet containing nux-vomica, which is used to contract the muscles of an inactive rumen (buy online or at the veterinary clinic).
A sick animal hangs his head low, seeks solitude and refuses any food. He may stand in corner or facing a wall. The behaviour is very uncharacteristic. Take his temperature and call the veterinary doctor. Rectal temperature should be 37.5-39.5 degrees C.
Register with a local veterinary clinic and request a visit to implement a health plan, including parasite control. This ensures your professional knows your case history before recommending treatment for your animals. It is worth the extra cost! Many prescriptions for goats are “cascade”/”off-label”, meaning the products are not licensed for goats and need professional recommendation. It is important to build a good client-veterinary relationship. Keep the surgery number in an easy to find place for emergencies. Save in it in your mobile and handset. If you have doubts about your animal’s health, or he is looking like the goat in the photo above, don’t hesitate to ring the veterinary clinic. Health issues can escalate quickly in ruminants.