I naively thought nothing bad would ever happen to my pair of does. I hate that it took a tragedy for me to face the reality and responsibility of goat care.
This summer in 2018, I lost my young doe, Scarlett, to listeriosis. Quick and aggressive treatment is critical to the survival of a sick goat. I believe that Scarlett would have had a better chance of surviving if I had started her treatment a day earlier when she just acted lethargic and was running a fever but was not yet “down”. My vet did not want to give antibiotics until she “knew what she was treating” and wanted to wait until Scarlett showed more specific symptoms. By the time Scarlett was drooling and staggering in circles it was too late. Recovery from listeriosis depends on early, aggressive antibiotic treatment. When signs of encephalitis are severe, death usually occurs despite treatment. Note: Scarlett had the encephalitic form of listeriosis, however there is also a form that causes abortion (miscarriage).
Here is the progress of her illness.
Tuesday, I noticed that Scarlett was sunning on the driveway while Belle was grazing in the backyard. Weird, because they almost always stay within sight of each other.
Wednesday, she was lethargic and would walk a while then lie down. When she walked her back leg(s) seemed to be a little weak. But she did eat some and drink water. By late afternoon she had gone to the barn and gotten weaker. I called the vet and was asked to get her temp but I didn’t even have a thermometer. I bought a thermometer and called a friend to help. Her temp was 103.8. The vet did not want to prescribe antibiotics without knowing what we were dealing with. BIG MISTAKE.
Thursday: By the time I woke up Scarlett was drooling profusely. When I was able to get her on her feet she pulled her head sharply to the left and just walked in a circle (hence, the name “Circling Disease). The listeria bacteria infect the brain and, among other effects, can cause paralysis on one side of the face. She was not blinking one eye.
To add to my frustration and panic, my phone reception was terrible, and I had to drive to a nearby restaurant parking lot to be understood. I finally got through to the vet. I had no way to transport Scarlett to her clinic, so she came by and gave her dexamethasone (steroid) for the inflammation in the brain, Banamine (flunixin meglumine) for fever and prescribed Procaine (antibiotic) every 12 hours. But by then it was too little, too late. Even with treatment, she continued to go downhill. I got the supplies to administer subcutaneous fluids, but since she still swallowed I just gave her electrolyte fluids by mouth. Looking back, I wish I had added the sub Q fluids.
Friday: Over the next 24 hours Scarlett grew weaker and weaker. It was heartbreaking to watch. Finally, by Friday afternoon she was almost totally unresponsive, and I accepted the fact that she was not going to make it. I decided to end her suffering. It had been only a little over 48 hours since I knew something was truly wrong with Scarlett. The vet came and put her down. She was very kind and reassured me that I was doing the right thing. She then told me that she had only seen 2 or 3 cases of Listeriosis where the goat survived, and in these cases, it took months of intensive medical care on the part of the owners for the goat to pull through. And, she added, those goats were left with neurological issues. She said she didn’t tell me this at the outset because she could tell I was determined to try to save Scarlett. And, who knows, Scarlett might have been the one goat to beat the odds. I felt guilty but, given that I had a full-time job, I knew I would not have been capable of that level of care.
Now, to be practical, I wanted to treat Scarlett’s body with respect and love. I anticipated that I might be dealing with this situation even before I had decided to put her down. I had no way to move or bury her by myself and calling friends to do it seemed too much to ask, so I went online and researched pet cremation services. I found one that would come pick her up anytime, not just during weekday working hours, and gave them a call to make sure they would handle a goat when needed. They were so kind and respectful and didn’t seem to think it odd that a woman would want to cremate her pet goat. I called after we put Scarlett down and a wonderful man drove 3 hours round trip to pick her up Friday night. It was an expensive solution, but I was comforted by his kindness.
What I learned from this tragedy:
- Have a plan for handling emergency situations so that you can be calm and rational if/when the time comes. Be prepared with a final plan in case the worst happens.
- Make a list of emergency supplies and keep them on hand.
- Find a vet who can make farm calls if necessary.
- Be informed about the varieties of illness and injury and be firm and proactive in demanding prompt and aggressive treatment.
- Learn what medications are best for treating Listeriosis and other illnesses or injury and plan on having as many of them on hand as you are allowed.
I researched the causes and prevention of listeria infections. For all goat owners I encourage you to do the same. For example, I had always heard not to let your goats eat moldy hay, which I certainly tried not to allow. I figured it might upset their stomachs. Now I have a greater understanding of the true dangers of that and other seemingly picky considerations. The bacteria are all around us can breed in any moist, organic environment, like hay, silage, even grain feed. Standing water can also pose a threat and lord knows we’ve had lots of that with all the rain we had in NC this spring. So far, I have not identified the specific source of Scarlett’s infection, so I am trying to deal with anything I can find.
I have read that there can repeated yearly outbreaks in the same herd during winter-spring when conditions are the most conducive to bacteria growth.
Some recommendations for the prevention of Listeriosis:
- Discard spoiled feed and hay.
- Improve sanitation of pens, water supply, pasture, and housing.
- Keep wild birds away from the herd as much as possible as these birds may serve as vectors for the disease.
- Identify the source of infection in order to help eliminate the causative agent.
By Sarah Simon
Here are some online references:
Listeriosis is an infection of the central nervous system and digestive system caused by the gram-positive bacterium listeria monocytogenes.
Listeria monocytogenes can live in:
- Animal intestinal tracts
- Spoiled or waste silage, hay, or grains.
- Troughs and bedding, especially in porous surfaces like wood
Listeriosis is zoonotic. In humans, listeriosis can be mild with symtoms such as headache, muscle aches, and diarrhea or very severe flu-like symptoms. Listeria infections in pregnant woman can be fatal to the unborn babies. Transfer to humans is possible through:
- Unpasteurized milk and milk products (listeria monocytogenes can survive some forms of pasteurization) and raw meat.
- Placenta, fetuses, or newborn kids of infected animals
- Dead animals or aborted fetuses
While listeriosis is not considered common, prevention is critical and early detection is key. Even with early detection and treatment, treatment might not be successful. Recommended treatment is large, initially frequent doses of an antibiotic such as penicillin, which is also gram positive, and fortified vitamin B (to replenish thiamine) until the animal shows significant improvement. Then the animal is gradually weaned from the antibiotic treatment, monitoring for relapse. For a full treatment regimen, check out Goat Vet Corner’s note “Listeriosis – Circling Disease.”
“Listeriosis in Small Ruminants: A Review” by Tewodros Fentahun and Atsedewoyne Fresebehat
Goat Vet Corner on Facebook.com
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