July 4, 2014

A Goat Mystery Solved

I hate learning things the hard way, but for several years I have been bewildered by the mystery deaths of three young bucklings. I had these boys in different years and they were different breeds. Two were purchased from breeders in different states, the other was born on the homestead.  No other goat had been or became sick. None of them had diarrhea, a symptom of coccidiosis, which often afflicts young goats. What they all had in common was dying shortly after they'd been weaned at two months old.

The symptoms were the same: weakness, lethargy, and then death within just a couple days. The first one I tried to treat myself with antibiotics because the vet I had at the time wasn't familiar with goats. The second one I took to the vet but he was stumped. He gave him antibiotics but I lost him anyway. The third one went down so fast that I barely knew what happened. Needless to say, this turned me very much against early weaning.

Two months of age is generally considered an acceptable age to begin weaning goats. Young bucks are often separated because they become sexually mature that young. It is fully possible that they can impregnate any doe or doeling in heat. Last year I kept Alphie with his mother until three months of age. He wasn't happy about being separated, but he made it just fine.  Ziggy's boys (Zed and Buster Brown) were neutered and bottle fed. I sold them at four months old while they were still on the bottle. In fact, the gentleman who bought them was looking for a pair of wethers as pets for his kids. He had previously bought a pair of two month olds and lost both the same way I lost mine. He was happy with how healthy my boys looked and they went to a good home.

This year I think I've finally figured something out.

Splash's sisters Sissy (front) and Dottie (back)

It was just before I separated Splash, and Lily was feeding all three of her triplets. They always rushed her at the same time and with all three of them pushing and shoving and jockeying for a teat, I couldn't really tell who was getting what and just assumed they all got at least some milk. But one morning, there was Dottie, weak, wobbly, and alarmingly thin. She was standing there with a spaced out look and trembling. What had happened? Wasn't it just yesterday that all seven kids were running and leaping through the back gate, down the hill, and into the woods? Or was it the day before? How could this have happened so fast? Why didn't I notice?

This was exactly what had happened to the three bucklings I'd lost. How could it be happening again? And to one of my precious little Kinder girls. In a flash I realized that Dottie must have been consistently pushed out of the milk feeding frenzy. As she grew weaker, she got less and less. But what was going on?

The hard part about diagnosing animals is that they cannot give subjective information. They cannot tell you how they feel, where it hurts, or what led up to the problem. Diagnosis is a based on objective observations, and anyone who is doing the diagnosing will likely tell you it often feels like taking a shot in the dark. In my research I found a helpful Symptoms Chart over at the Jack and Anita Mauldin Boer Goat website. Based on that, my best guess for Dottie was goat polio (polioencephalomalcia). This is actually caused by a vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency, not a virus or bacteria. It is treated with massive doses of thiamine injections.

Injectable thiamine is a prescription item so I didn't have any, but I did have over-the-counter injectable B complex. I followed the directions for using that, giving injections every six hours until symptoms either cleared or the animal died. It took a week's worth of injections but, to my great relief, she finally pulled through.

Dottie, still a little thin but getting around and eating again.

How did it happen? Goat polio is more common in young goats than adults, and one of the causes I found listed was a "difficult weaning". I have no idea what that's supposed to mean, but what happens, is that an abrupt weaning (such as separation) amounts to the sudden change in diet. This is something goat owners are warned against because it upsets the microbial balance in the rumen. The micro-organisms, besides digesting what the goat has eaten, build proteins and manufacture B vitamins. Cautions are always given about changing feeds, adding fresh pasture, etc. The bacteria and protozoa need time to adjust for healthy digestion. I knew to make slow adjustments in an adult goat's diet, but it never occurred to me concerning weaning. Abrupt early weaning causes a disruption in the manufacture of vitamin B1 (thiamine) and the young goat develops a deficiency. The symptoms of that deficiency (depression, not eating, weakness, staring off into space, aimless wandering, apparent blindness, muscle tremors) is what is called polioencephalomalcia or goat polio.

If I'm right, then this explains why my 2 month old bucklings didn't make it. By three months of age, they must be getting more forage than milk anyway, so that's why I didn't have a problem with Alphie. For Splash, besides separating him immediately, I gave doses of "medicinal milk" for several days to make sure his rumen could adjust!

People deal with bucklings in different ways. Some separate and bottle feed all the boys from birth. The boys are usually stronger and more aggressive. They can and will push weaker sisters out of the way. I've opted to let them stay with mom and separate at three months. It results in a lot of hollering, but it's been less work for me to let them nurse rather than wait for me to fix a bottle.

I'm not 100% certain I'm correct about this, but the B vitamins seemed to make a life or death difference for Dottie. She had a few ups and downs but gradually got stronger and started eating again. What a relief.


Chris said...

As I was reading, I was wondering if it was a sudden change in diet. It can happen to lactating mothers too, if they're suddenly given a new feed, and no access to the old.

I can thoroughly understand why you thought all three kids were getting enough milk - it's not like you can measure how much they're getting at a time. But now you know what symptoms to look out for in future.

I'm extremely glad to hear this tale of woe, ended with a workable solution and no fatalities. :)

Tina T-P said...

We have weaning coming up - The Shepherd decided to wait until after the 4th because of the noise and the hassle of the fireworks (we are not too far from the reservation and there are many stands where people can buy them - so we'll have our own "fireworks" next week - ha ha - although the Shetland ewes do a pretty good job of weaning by themselves - it's called a kick in the side of the head - that seems to really get their attention :-) T.

Leigh said...

Chris, isn't it amazing how often diet is at the root of it all? With goats, it seems to be key, especially mineral deficiencies. I hate the live and learn part, but am so glad I'm figuring this out.

Tina, moms really do the best job when it comes to weaning. At what age do you wean your lambs? Nobody likes weaning!

Farmer Barb said...

SO INTERESTING! I have been offering the bottle to my now three month old doelings and only the smaller one wants it. They were part of triplets, a buckling and two doelings. Daisy was the smallest of the three and the most often used for educational presentations, leaving the other two to nurse in her absence. She was only gone for half an hour or so, but their mother probably let them nurse. Daisy is finally putting on weight. She looked like a Beanie Baby. They have a side access to the hay, away from the sheep. Competition is nature's way of weeding out the weak. I guess that is something we need to remember. By separating suddenly and early, we are simulating that competition. Bravo, Leigh!

Unknown said...

I learned something new about goats. I would like to have a few or more in the near future and this is a good reminder how much of a commitment animals are. Whether to keep as pets or for food.

Renee Nefe said...

I'm surprised that there wasn't more information on this for you. You can't be the first person to come by this problem.
I'm so glad that you were able to bring Dottie back around and know what to look for and do if this ever happens again. How scary.

Sandra said...

We always keep thiamine on hand.Sheep can have the same problem.
Glad she pulled through!! :)

Leigh said...

Barb, I guess the difference is we choose according to our own goals, and I can never shake my sense of stewardship and responsibility because of it. Now, I think back about the little registered Pygmy buckling I lost. He was part of my Kinder Starter Kit and I can't help but wonder how different things would be if I'd known then what I know now. No one else has ever mentioned this, however, and that's why I wonder if I'm right. It makes sense, however, and the proof is in the pudding, as they say.

Nadia, well said. There is just so much to learn. I read and read but can't retain it all. Still, when a problem arises, my memory usually jogs. It definitely will now for this.

Renee, now I feel so badly for the kids I lost. I'm surprised my vet didn't suspect this, but then, he wasn't a livestock vet. It was very scary indeed.

Sandra, when I first got goats I would read through the long lists of things to keep on hand. Experience is truly the best teacher and I'm glad I had at least the B complex on hand!

Michelle said...

Good detective work, Leigh! It sounds like you've figured it out. :-)

weavinfool said...

Do you vaccinate them with. Covexin-8 before weaning? That helps when sheep are about to be stressed.

Anonymous said...

Keep an eye on her in the future too, and be aggressive with treatment. Get a prescription from your vet for the thiamine, it's cheap insurance to have on hand.

In my experience, a goat that develops polio will tend to get it again when stressed. One of my Angora wethers got it (to the point he could not stand and actually lost his eyesight for a while). He got to live in the house while he recuperated, but any real stress would tip him over the edge again. I lost him before the year was out.

Debby Riddle said...

Evidently they make B vitamins in their rumen daily, and if something interferes with that, you can loose them very quickly. Parasite load is one cause, , but anything that interferes with their digestion, can cause a deficiency. I had one doe,go semi convulsive and blind, after a kidding. Pat from the Kinder group sent me an article on B vitamin deficiency , I dosed her up and she pulled around in a matter of hours. I would never be without it again.

Leigh said...

Michelle, thanks! Good to hear from you.

Weavinfool, in our area the only recommended vac for goats is CDT.

Sue, thank you for that! I so appreciate your knowledge and experience. I will indeed keep an eye on her and a better eye on them all.

Debby, and thank you for that! What is said about feeding the rumen is so true.

Harry Flashman said...

Trying to figure out what's wrong with animals is hard. Our vet didn't know anything about ferrets, and we did most of our "doctoring" on line in ferret forums. Then an exotic pet specialist started coming here two days a week and it has been a huge relief. I know exactly how you felt, with sick animals and having to take the responsibility for their care all on your own shoulders.

Leigh said...

Harry, it's the worst part of keeping animals. I wish they never got sick.

Danielle (PareDownLookUp) said...

This was so useful and timely - thank you. We almost lost a kid last weekend with an odd case of foaming bloat that our breeder thought could be polio. We lucked out and she recovered after spending a few hours with an amazing vet, but I am now reading up on the various kinds of bloat as well as polio and listeriosis.

Leigh said...

Danielle, I appreciate your sharing that. It is so wonderful you found a vet who could help! The research and study truly does help. I know I don't remember everything I read, but when faced with a crisis I usually find something popping into my head that puts me on the right track. Glad you had a happy ending too!