What is polio in goats?
Anyone that has goats knows that they are unlike any other livestock. Goats are sensitive to numerous minerals and vitamins. This usually becomes a problem when goats are managed like cattle or sheep, which happens fairly often.
Many goat owners fall into trouble with their goats when they provide them livestock feed or mineral blends that are designed for multiple species.
This can lead to numerous health issues, one of them being goat polio.
When you hear the term ‘goat polio’, you probably think of an infectious disease. Polio in humans is caused by the poliovirus, so it can be contagious. Polio in goats is not contagious though as it’s not caused by a virus.
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Causes of Polioencephalomalacia (PEM)
If goat polio isn’t caused by a virus, what causes it?
Polio in goats is usually caused by some sort of nutrient issue. There are two main nutrient issues that can cause goat polio: a thiamine deficiency or sulfur toxicity.
Thiamine (pronounced thigh-uh-meen), is also known as vitamin B1. Thiamine, just like all of the other B vitamins, is a water-soluble vitamin. This means that it will break down in the presence of water.
Thiamine is very important in ruminant nutrition. Goats are ruminants, just like cattle. If you’re not familiar with what a ruminant is, it’s an herbivore that has a unique stomach with four chambers. Read this article to see how digestion in ruminants works.
Ruminants rely on the bacteria in their gut to get many of the nutrients that they need. Bacteria in the first two compartments of the goat’s stomach work to break down the food that the goat eats. When the bacteria break the food down, they release nutrients into the digestive tract that the goat can use and absorb.
One of those nutrients is thiamine. Thiamine is used for many processes in the body. Perhaps one of the most important things that it does is release energy for the brain to use.
So, when there isn’t enough thiamine available, the brain cannot function properly.
Sulfur is a necessary nutrient for goats. However, when goats consume too much sulfur, it can cause problems. Sulfur competes with thiamine to be absorbed.
When sulfur and thiamine are both competing to be absorbed, sulfur usually wins. This creates a deficit of thiamine in the goat.
Essentially, sulfur toxicity over an extended period of time can create a thiamine deficiency, which can lead to goat polio.
When the diet of goats is more than 0.4% sulfur, the risk of goat polio developing becomes high.
Other Causes of Goat Polio
B1 is a crucial nutrient for overall goat health. When there isn’t enough B1 present, the goat’s brain cannot function properly. This, of course, affects all of the systems in the body.
Goats get the majority of the B1 in their diet from the bacteria that live in their digestive tract, specifically the rumen compartment of the goat’s stomach. It’s important to keep these bacteria healthy so that they can continue to produce nutrients for the goat.
Most causes of goat polio can be linked back to the goat’s diet. Any changes in diet can affect gut bacteria.
Abrupt changes in feed, hay, or forage will cause some of the bacteria to die. If a lot of the gut bacteria die, this can lead to nutrient deficiencies, including thiamine deficiency and therefore goat polio.
Goat polio is most commonly seen in the winter months. This is largely because goat owners start feeding more grain and less forage. The bacteria that are the most beneficial in the digestive tract break down forages like hay and grass, not grain. When a lot of grain is fed, these bacteria die back and can’t produce enough thiamine.
It’s also important to note that lead poisoning and salt poisoning can lead to forms of goat polio. These forms of polio don’t have anything to do with thiamine levels though, so thiamine treatment (discussed below) will not be effective.
Cerebrocortical necrosis is another name for goat polio. It’s used to describe what goat polio actually does to the brain. It’s also abbreviated as CCN.
Necrosis is a scientific term that means ‘the death of most or all of the cells in an organ or tissue due to disease, injury, or failure of the blood supply.’
Fun random fact- When I was 16, I broke a few bones in my left foot. They didn’t heal correctly and eventually, a few of the bones died and actually started to rot, inside of my foot. That was my first experience with the word necrosis since that’s what the doctors used to describe what was going on in my foot. Luckily, it was repaired with surgery and the bones healed.
Cerebrocortical describes where the disease affects the animal: the cerebral cortex, AKA the brain.
So if you see the term cerebrocortical necrosis used, don’t be intimidated by it. It literally means the death of cells within the brain. You can always use the easy term to describe it- goat polio. 🙂
Goat neurological disorders
There are other neurological disorders in goats that may have similar symptoms to goat polio.
- annual ryegrass toxicity
- vitamin A deficiency
- pregnancy toxemia
It’s important to pay close attention to your goat herd. If you notice something seems off, take notes about what’s going on and when. Consider if there have been any recent changes in the diet or housing that could have something to do with the new behavior.
Is it goat polio or listeriosis?
Listeriosis is a disease that also causes brain damage and neurological symptoms. Goat polio is caused by a nutritional problem though and can be treated with thiamine.
Listeriosis is caused a bacteria that lives in the soil, environment, and possibly feed, hay, or even the goat’s digestive tract.
To treat listeriosis, you’ll need procaine penicillin. The symptoms of listeriosis are similar to goat polio. You can have your goats tested to see what the underlying issue is.
Symptoms of PEM
Goats are masters at keeping symptoms hidden until they’re quite sick. This is an evolutionary thing; goats are prey animals. In nature, prey animals that are healthier are harder for predators to attack.
So, predators will look for animals that show signs of weakness or illness. Most prey animals, including goats, have figured this out and will not show signs of being injured or ill. When they do show signs that something is wrong, it’s usually pretty advanced.
This means that your need to keep a close eye on your goats. Get familiar with what their normal behaviors are. Check them frequently for signs of good health.
When goats get polioencephalomalacia, they’ll act off. Most of their symptoms are neurological, due to the swelling that takes place in the brain and the destruction of neurons (brain cells).
Early symptoms can include:
- watery eyes
- dilated pupils
- awkward gait
- going off of feed
- being louder than normal
Later symptoms include:
- partial or complete inability to walk
- head curving backward over the back
In the video below, you’ll see a goat with polio on the show Dr. Pol. Notice that she’s vocal, starting to have seizures, trouble standing up and her head keeps going backwards over her back.
What are the signs of polio in goats?
You may notice that your goat is more vocal than normal. All goats are vocal when in heat or when they see you; that’s normal. Don’t assume that your suddenly noisy goat has polio. However, any time your goat is acting different, it’s important to keep an eye on them.
If you notice that your goat seems to have trouble walking, inspect the feet. It could be a case of hoof rot, which is very common in goats. If you don’t see signs of injury or hoof rot, watch the goat. Does he/she seem slow to move? Are they favoring one foot or is it just an overall awkwardness when they walk?
If the goat just seems awkward when he/she walks, it could be the early signs of a neurological issue. If they’re just favoring one foot consistently, it’s more likely to be an injury or hoof rot on that foot.
You may not notice the early signs of polio. Many producers will notice the late-stage symptoms easily though. This includes partial or complete inability to walk. Most goats with polio will also have issues with their head and neck. The goat’s neck will bend backward so much that the head may actually touch the back.
Goats in the late stages of polio will also have seizures.
Treatment of PEM
If caught early enough and treated, goats can overcome polio. Since most polio is caused by a thiamine deficiency, the best method of treatment is to give goats thiamine.
If your goat is showing signs of polio, your first instinct should be to give them thiamine. You can get an injectable form of B1 from your local veterinarian. That’s the best option since giving an injection is the fastest way to get thiamine into them.
Your next best option is oral thiamine. There are several forms out there that you can buy to give your goats oral B1. I’ve used Rooster Booster (the goat version) and I always keep a bottle of it handy. It’s inexpensive and goats enjoy the taste. Even my pickiest goat will drink it like it’s candy.
The good thing about giving thiamine even if you’re a little bit suspicious that your goat has polio is that it’s very hard to give your goat too much thiamine. Remember, thiamine is a water-soluble vitamin. This means that it will break down and be flushed out in the presence of water. So, if you give them too much or if they don’t actually have a thiamine deficiency, they’ll urinate out the excess.
With all of that being said, giving thiamine isn’t an ideal long-term treatment option. You’ll want to determine why your goat has polio to begin with and fix the cause.
Goats caught in the early stages will show improvement in symptoms in as little as 2-4 hours. Goats that have more advanced stages of polio make take 2-3 days to quit showing symptoms.
Goats should be treated for thiamine deficiency well past the time that they stop showing symptoms. This will help get the goat’s gut bacteria and body back on the right track. If you quit treating the goat when they stop showing signs, the problem may pop up again.
Add thiamine to the diet for 2-3 weeks after symptoms have disappeared.
Most veterinarians will recommend 0.25 cc per 10 pounds of body weight 3-4 times per day to treat polio. This is the dosage recommended for injectable thiamine.
Can goat polio be cured?
If caught soon enough, then yes, goat polio can be cured. Once your goat is having seizures, it can be hard to get them back.
If you notice symptoms of polio, begin immediate treatment with thiamine. It’s also a good idea to give prebiotics and probiotics to help replenish and nourish the gut bacteria so that they can begin producing the B1 for your goats again soon.
Don’t give your goat feed. Remove any feed from their diet and give them high-quality forages. The bacteria that produce thiamine for the goat flourish when the goat’s diet is mainly forage. When the goat’s diet is heavy in grains, these bacteria die back and the amount of thiamine that the goats get is decreased.
Keep goats with polio off of grains for at least 2-3 weeks after ending treatment to give gut bacteria time to repopulate. When you’re ready to introduce feed again, do it very gradually and keep the amounts low.
Some goats that have been in the late stages of polio may need physical rehabilitation to walk again. You can help them by putting them in a harness and massaging their legs. The research on this rehabilitation for goats after polio is very slim, but there have been reports showing that it can work.
Is goat polio encephalomalacia contagious?
No. Goat polio is not contagious and cannot be spread from one goat to another.
In order for something to be contagious, it needs to be caused by a bacteria or virus. Goat polio is caused by a nutrient deficiency, not a virus or bacteria.
With that being said, it is possible for you to have multiple goats come down with polio. When this happens, there is usually something in the environment that the goats share that leads to polio. If you notice multiple goats coming down with polio, I would highly recommend getting your soil and water tested for excessive sulfur.
You may also want to think about the diet of your goats if they are getting polio. It could be that you are feeding too much grain and not enough forage.
Polio in goats isn’t contagious but it is possible for more than one goat to get it.
Prevention of Goat Polio
The best way to treat goat polio is to prevent it from happening in the first place.
There are a few steps that you can take to keep your goats healthy and to ensure that they don’t have to deal with the effects of goat polio.
Change diets very slowly.
When you change the diet that your goats are on, you’re disrupting the environment that those crucial gut bacteria live in. Make any diet changes very gradually, over 2-3 weeks. If you’re swapping feed, gradually decrease the old feed and increase the new feed over the course of 2-3 weeks.
The same goes for if you’re introducing grain, swapping hay, or putting goats onto pasture.
Also, make sure that your goat’s feed is put up securely where they cannot get to it. Goats are natural escape artists and will get into feed if they can. You may even walk in to your feed shed to see your goat actually in the goat feed bin if you aren’t careful.
Goats that fill gorge themselves on grain in one sitting can cause a thiamine deficiency and can get polio.
Use goat-specific feed and supplements.
Goats need levels of minerals and nutrients that are different from other livestock. Don’t feed goats feed or supplements that are labeled for ‘livestock’ or ‘multiple species’. The nutrient levels won’t be right for your goats and it can lead to serious health issues.
Also, there are many feeds and supplements out there that are labeled for sheep and goats. Don’t buy those either. A lot of people assume that sheep and goats are very similar and therefore can eat the same things. The nutrient needs for sheep and goats are very different. Avoid these feeds or supplements that claim to work for both.
Keep feed fresh.
Moldy feed can cause health issues. Keep feed in a sealed container and don’t let it get wet. Remove any moldy or spoiled feed before giving it to your goats.
All feed can mold, even shelf-stable feeds.
Don’t overfeed grain.
Goat polio is caused by a thiamine deficiency. Goats get the majority of their thiamine from the bacteria that live in their stomach, particularly the rumen and reticulum.
If the bacteria can’t survive, goats will not be able to get the thiamine that they need to stay healthy.
When you feed goats a lot of grain, it causes their stomach to become acidic. The rumen and reticulum (the first two compartments of the goat’s stomach) aren’t very acidic. The good bacteria cannot live in an acidic environment. Feeding too much grain causes the first two compartments of the stomach to become acidic and will kill the good bacteria.
Use grain sparingly. I know that grain seems like a good option to feed goats, especially if you’re feeding them out. But keep in mind the risks involved with excessive grain.
Make sure that the majority of the goat’s diet comes from forages. A forage-rich diet will keep the gut bacteria population healthy.
If it’s a recurring problem, have your soil and water tested.
Some soil in the U.S. is high in sulfur. The same goes for water. If your soil or water is high in sulfur then it can disrupt the absorption of thiamine in the goat’s body, leading to polio. High levels of sulfur in the soil or water can also lead to fertility issues in goats.
Goats that won’t get pregnant can be an early clue that your soil or water has high levels of sulfur. This is one of the earliest signs that we had with our goats. We bought a herd that included several does and a buck that had all been together for a little over a year. The does have all had kids successfully with this same buck.
Once we brought them home, they didn’t have babies for almost 2 years, despite the buck breeding the does. We also had another group of does that was with another buck and they didn’t have kids either.
This went on for about 2 years and then we had some goats get polio. Once we put all of the pieces together, we realized that we had high levels of sulfur in our water. So again, be on the lookout for signs that something isn’t right with your goats.