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Common Diseases in Goats & Sheep

Common Diseases in Goats & Sheep

Caring for your goats and sheep involves being familiar with common diseases that can affect them. Today, our Brighton veterinarians share some common illnesses and conditions that can affect goats and sheep, as well as their symptoms and treatments. 

Goats and sheep are classified as small ruminants, which are herbivores that have special four-chambered stomachs to help them with the digestion of grass and other fibrous vegetation. While there are a number of diseases that can affect these animals, some common ones can cause issues with reproduction, cause serious infections, respiratory disease and more. 

Common Diseases In Goats & Sheep

Bacterial Pneumonia

The bacteria Pasteurella multocida or Mannheimia haemolytica (previously Pasteurella haemolytica) are often found in the upper respiratory tract of healthy goats and sheep. These bacteria are also the most frequent reason for respiratory infection and death in farm goats and sheep. 

Signs include:

  • fever (104º F/40º C to 106º F/41º C)
  • moist, painful cough and difficulty breathing
  • mucopurulent (mucus and pus) discharge from the nose and eyes
  • crackling sounds when the animal's chest is listened to with a stethoscope 
  • loss of appetite
  • lethargy or tiredness

Your veterinarian will base your animal's diagnosis on their clinical signs and your herd's history. If the animal succumbs to the disease, an autopsy could reveal the cause of pneumonia. Treatment consists of vet-prescribed antibiotics, and instructions to keep any infected animals in a dry, well-ventilated area away from the healthy herd members. Prevention can include preventive vaccination and herd management. 

Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis (CAE)

This disease is caused by the virus of the small ruminant lentivirus (SRLV) of the Retroviridae family. It is primarily seen in dairy goat breeds, but can be present in meat goats and sheep as well. 

CAE is usually transmitted through the consumption of the colostrum of infected milk from ill does/ewes. Other methods CAE include contamination from the blood of open wounds or infected instruments (e.g. needles, dehorners), and, rarely, between lactating adult goats. 

CAE is a slow, progressive disease with no cure. Signs can take months or years to show and include conditions like chronic joint inflammation, mastitis, and interstitial pneumonia. In young goats (kids) between 2-6 months old, paralysis due to encephalitis and myelitis is more prone.

In order to diagnose CAE, vets will take the herd health history and run a number of laboratory tests, such as ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay).

Although there is no cure for CAE, your veterinarian might offer supportive therapy options. Animals that recover from CAE will remain carriers of the virus for life. 

Prevention and control are the most effective ways to stop the spread of the virus. Some preventive and herd management steps one could take include:

  • Removing/culling infected animals from your herd
  • Not purchasing breeding animals from unknown sources
  • Have new and existing stock tested for CAE before integrating them into the herd


Abortions in sheep and goats can be caused by a number of things, including infectious diseases, toxic substances, and abnormalities affecting fetus development. Some common diseases caused by microorganisms include chlamydiosis, listeriosis, toxoplasmosis, neosporosi, and several others. These can cause abortion in goats and sheep and are zoonotic, which means they can pass from animals to humans and infect them. When attending a lambing or kidding or handling aborted lamb or sheep fetuses, it is important to use protective clothing, latex gloves or plastic arm sleeves.

The diagnosis of abortion in sheep and goats is based on clinical signs and herd history. Diagnostics may be run on samples to identify the infectious agent.

Treatment will vary widely, based on the identified cause of the abortion. For prevention of the spread of disease and conditions that cause abortions in your dairy herd/flock, try some of the following tips:

  • Immediately contact your vet for help carrying out an investigation
  • Use protective clothing and latex gloves or plastic sleeves to stop infection. Incinerate the sleeves or gloves afterward to prevent contamination.
  • Isolate the animal from the healthy members of the herd, quarantining it until further veterinary investigation.
  • Keep the placenta and fetus on ice or refrigerated (do not freeze), as your vet may need samples to examine and send to a diagnostic lab

Pregnancy Toxemia (Ketosis)

This metabolic disorder is most commonly seen in older, overweight does/ewes with multiple fetuses, 1-3 weeks before kidding/lambing. Ketosis is linked to prepartum mortality.

If there is insufficient nutritional energy during the later stages of the animal's pregnancy, the doe/ewe's body uses fatty tissue as a source of energy and milk production. In most cases, the body's use of fatty tissue isn't harmful, but overuse produces an excess of ketones (toxic byproducts) into the bloodstream, potentially damaging the liver and kidneys.

Symptoms of pregnancy toxemia include:

  • Little or no appetite
  • Low energy or lethargy
  • Clumsiness or imbalance (many animals lay down and can't rise again)
  • Teeth grinding
  • Blindness
  • Coma

Herd history and symptoms will be used for diagnosis, and ketone levels can be tracked to determine a more accurate prognosis for the animal. 

Your veterinarian may treat the condition with propylene glycol, or another energy supplement if the disease is caught early on. 

To lessen the likelihood of ketosis in your pregnant animals, it's important to ensure they are eating well, especially at the later stages of pregnancy. It's also important to help them avoid stress or sudden changes in diet.

Caseous Lymphadenitis (CL)

Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis bacteria can be found throughout the world. Goats and sheep can develop Caseous Lymphadenitis (CL) after coming into contact with pus from an ill animal, or by ingesting contaminated food or water.

The main symptom of CL is the development of internal and external abscesses containing thick, yellow-green pus with a foul odor. There is currently no cure, and diagnosis is based on a physical examination of the animal's body or blood tests. 

Prevention is the best method to stop the spread of CL. Steps include:

  • Having the abscesses carefully drained to avoid ruptures and infection of healthy animals
  • Culling infected animals
  • Check CL history of farms and avoid purchasing animals with visible abscesses or abscess scars
  • Male animals should be carefully examined, as an infected male can spread CL to the females
  • Use clean needles for each animal, and thoroughly disinfect equipment (e.g. ear taggers, wool shears)
  • Consider a closed herd


Coccidiosis is a parasite that is host-specific (different animals are infected by different species of Coccidia). While grazing, or by ingesting contaminated water, goats and sheep can ingest oocytes (developing eggs). When the oocytes enter the animal's body, they invade the cells of the intestinal lining, causing inflammation. Stressed kids/lambs who are weaned are predisposed to the condition, and outbreaks can erupt during stressful events (e.g. farm relocation). 

Signs of coccidiosis infection can include:

  • Watery diarrhea (may contain mucus or blood)
  • Constipation
  • No appetite (along with fever)
  • Dehydration
  • Weakness
  • Weight loss, emaciation
  • Hemorrhaging or ulcerations of intestinal wall
  • Sudden death 

Your vet can diagnose the condition based on the health history of your herd, symptoms, and fecal examinations. Options for treatment include administering a vet-prescribed coccidiostat, whether via drenching or adding to the drinking water. If the animal is severely dehydrated, intravenous (IV) fluid therapy may be necessary until the animal is rehydrated.

Prevention and control can include:

  • Improving hygiene in facilities, pens, feeding areas and water sources, and pastures
  • Minimize kids'/lambs' stress during weaning
  • Avoid keeping animals in damp environments without direct sunlight
  • Be prepared for potential outbreaks post-weaning or during severe weather 

Contagious Ecthyma (Orf/Sore Mouth)

Orf is a zoonotic disease (transmissible from animal to human) that affects goats and sheep via direct contact with the parapoxvirus. It usually takes 2-5 days after exposure for infected animals to start showing signs of the disease, which lasts 1-2 weeks. Sore mouth tends to break out in sheep and goats after stressful events like weaning, relocation, or being transported. 

The main symptom of orf is blisters that become wet scabs on the face (lips, nose, ears, eyelids) and is transmissible from nursing kids/lambs to the doe/ewe. The nursing female can develop extremely painful lesions on the teats and udder, which can even prevent them from eating. 

Diagnosis is based on physical symptoms, including where the lesions are located on the body, but a more conclusive diagnosis can be reached from virus isolation and an immunologic test.

Luckily, sore mouth usually resolves without intervention but in more severe cases your vet might prescribe antibiotics to fight secondary bacterial infections.

Prevention and management can include:

  • Avoid stress during transportation
  • Quarantine new animals for 6 weeks before integrating them into the herd
  • Separate sick animals for observation and treatment
  • Wear gloves when handling sick animals
  • Do not consume milk from does/ewes with lesions on the teats/udder
  • If recommended by your vet, have your animal vaccinated 

Other Common Diseases Affecting Goats & Sheep

Enterotoxemia (Overeating Disease) is caused by the animal absorbing toxins produced by bacteria (Clostridium perfringens types C and D). Symptoms frequently occur in kids/lambs and include loss of appetite, abdominal discomfort, diarrhea, fever, lethargy, and sudden death. Treatments include antitoxins, penicillin, anti-bloating medication, and a number of other medications. Vaccination is also an effective preventive measure.

Foot Rot and Foot Scald is contagious and, as the name suggests, affects goats' and sheep's hooves. Foot rot is caused by the bacteria Dichelobacter nodosus and Fusobacterium necrophorum, which may be from infected feces or soil. Symptoms include limping, grazing on knees, pus, foul odor, loss of appetite, and hoof deformity.Foot scald (interdigital dermatitis) is caused by F. necrophorum, leading to inflammation between the toes. Symptoms are pink or white skin between the toes that is raw, moist, and sensitive.

Treatment includes isolation of infected animals, hoof trimming, footbath solution, vet-recommended antibiotics, and cleaning pens and barns. 
Sheep can be vaccinated against foot rot, but the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved the vaccine for use in goats.

Keratoconjunctivitis (Pinkeye) in goats and sheep is mainly caused by the microorganisms Mycoplasma conjunctivae and chlamydia species. Events such as the introduction of new animals, transportation/relocation, or stress due to harsh weather can cause outbreaks of pinkeye. Signs of pinkeye in goats and sheep include squinting, reddened, swollen eyes, yellow or green pus from eyes, cloudiness, and, in severe cases, ulcers that look like wounds. Treatment involves immediate separation of sick animals, eye washes with sterile saline, and administering vet-prescribed antibiotics. 

Listeriosis (Circling Disease) is a life-threatening disease that is spread when goats and sheep ingest spoiled forages and feed contaminated by Listeria monocytogenes. If the disease causes brain inflammation (encephalitis) is highly fatal. Symptoms in infected sheep and goats include progressive neuromuscular incoordination such as circling in the same direction, seizures, facial nerve paralysis, drooping ear(s), salivation, issues swallowing, and death. Treatment includes anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, and intravenous fluid therapy. Prevention can include discarding feed and hay that have spoiled.

Mycoplasmosis , otherwise called contagious agalactiae (CA), is caused by either Mycoplasma agalactiae, M. mycoides subspecies capri, M. capricolum subspecies capricolum, or M. putrefaciens. Transmission occurs when a carrier animal is introduced into a herd; kids/lambs can contract the disease while suckling, and adult animals can be infected through contact with people, milking machines, or potentially contaminated bedding and water. Symptoms of CA include mastitis, arthritis, pinkeye, diarrhea, increased respiratory rates, and abortion. Treatment includes supportive therapy, culling infected animals, and feeding kids/lambs pasteurized milk. Although your veterinarian may also prescribe antibiotics, the prognosis for sick animals is cautious. 

Polioencephalomalacia (Deficiency of Thiamine/Vitamin B1), often called 'polio' in livestock, is a metabolic disorder that can affect animals for a number of reasons, including sudden dietary changes, stress or prolonged treatment with amprolium, and other nutritional management issues. Symptoms include convulsions, lethardy, muscle tremors, aggression, blindness (can last 2-3 weeks), teeth grinding, severely arching back, nystagmus (rapid involuntary eye movement), and death. Treatment is vet-managed and can include intravenous thiamine therapy. 

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

If your goat or sheep is showing symptoms of disease, or if they're due for a checkup, contact our veterinary specialist team right away. Our Brighton vet specialists are experienced in caring for small farm animals and family pets.

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