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For all districts

Sudden death in goats



By Dr T. R. Thomas, district veterinary officer, Melbourne

Goats are not a particularly hardy species of animals in the higher rainfall areas of southern Australia. They can die quickly from a number of diseases. Any sudden death in a herd should be diagnosed so that measures can be taken to prevent further deaths.

The term "sudden death" is used to describe deaths that occur within 24 hours of signs of sickness occurring. Within this period of illness, whether goats that become sick are noticed before they die will depend on how often and how closely the herd is inspected. Where sudden deaths occur the Department of Agriculture should be notified so that a diagnosis can be made.

1. Anthrax

Anthrax is a rare cause of death of animals in Victoria. Most farm animals including goats are susceptible. It can occur in outbreaks causing serious losses.

Anthrax should be suspected in animals that die suddenly and show a blood discharge from the mouth, nose or anus. The carcases should not be moved.

The disease is transmissible to man.

The agnote "Anthrax and the farmer" describes this disease in detail in both animals and humans.

2. Clostridial diseases

The clostridial diseases are a major cause of sudden death in goats. The topic is fully covered in the agnote "Clostridia) diseases of goats".

3. Parasite infestations causing sudden death

(a) Acute liver fluke disease

Goats can die suddenly of acute liver fluke disease in the late summer. A post-mortem shows extensive liver damage.

(b) Acute worm infestation

Large numbers of Haemonchus contortus (Barber's pole worm) in the fourth stomach will cause sudden deaths usually in spring and autumn. This worm sucks blood and causes a fatal anaemia which, in goats observed before death, may cause pale mucous membranes and a collection of fluid swelling under the lower jaw. These signs may not be seen when deaths occur suddenly.

The small brown stomach worm (Ostertagia species), the small stomach worm (Trichostrongylus axes) and hair worms of the small intestine (Cooperia species and Trichostrongylus species) can cause sudden death if numbers are large enough. Hair worms are only 5-10 mm long, as fine as a hair, and can easily be missed on post­mortem even when present in tens of thousands.

4. Metabolic diseases

Grass tetany and milk fever do not appear to be major diseases of goats. However, "transport tetany" and "capture myopathy" cause sudden deaths in goats.

Losses of feral goats transported long distances are commonly from 10 to 25%. The stress of capture and transport, changes in the routine of feeding and watering and change in climate will quickly cause any concurrent disease to become important. Goats that have travelled may die of induced enterotoxaemia, pregnancy toxaemia and transit tetany.

"Capture myopathy" is a muscular degeneration that occurs in wild animals including feral goats. It is not fatal immediately, it causes death by kidney malfunction later in life.

To reduce these losses, goats should be vaccinated with clostridial vaccine and drenched for parasites two weeks before transport. Dietary changes should be as gradual as possible and stress in transport reduced.

5. Poisoning

Most acute poisonings of goats are due to toxic plants and insecticides. Poisoning by other chemical agents such as lead and arsenic are uncommon.

Plants that will most commonly poison goats are azalea, rhododendron and oleander. Oleander is an extremely toxic plant which if eaten causes gastro-enteritis, paralysis and death from heart failure.

Azalea and rhododendron cause gastro-enteritis with salivation, abdominal pain and death.

Deaths in goats from insecticides occur when these compounds are not used according to the manufacturers' recommendations, and particularly when they are used excessively. Poisoning may occur when insecticide is accidentally swallowed. Usually there are nervous signs, such as over-excitement, muscular jerking and an inability to stand or walk properly.

Salivation is common and urine and faeces are passed more frequently. There are signs of abdominal pain. Eventually the goat goes into convulsions and dies.

Rat poison may be eaten by goats because it is often incorporated with grain. If large quantities are consumed death can be rapid.

Where poisoning is suspected, veterinary assistance should be sought immediately. There are specific antidotes for most insecticides. Consult the label for directions regarding first aid.

Great care should be taken with any poisonous substance. Since many are attractive to goats, uncontrolled access to them should not be allowed.

6. Mastitis

Mastitis is common in goats but is not always a cause of sudden death. Mastitis can be hyper-acute or may be so mild as to go unnoticed.

Details of the recognition, treatment, control and prevention of mastitis in goats, can be found in the agnote "Mastitis of goats".

7. Bloat

Bloat occurs when goats consume large amounts of lush green leguminous feed such as lucerne and clovers. Bloat can also occur on lucerne hay.

In bloat the food mixture in the rumen or the first stomach forms a foam that the goat cannot belch away. As a result the gases formed by digestion build up. The rumen quickly fills with gas and the animal becomes distressed as pressure from the distended rumen increases. The abdomen is very swollen, and this swelling appears on the animal's left side. Death can occur quickly from failure of respiration and heart action as a result of pressure on the diaphragm.


If the goat is standing and there are no suitable stock medicines available it can be drenched with 60-120cc of either peanut, maize or safflower cooking oil. Oil will break up the foam and allow the gas to escape. After drenching, it may be necessary to massage the rumen or roll the goat over to spread the oil about among the contents inside the rumen.

If the goat is down, death may be close and quick action is usually needed. The goat should be stabbed with a clean sharp instrument or knife in the left flank behind the ribs so as to pass into the rumen. Allow the gas to escape fairly slowly, rather than in one or two seconds as this in itself may be fatal.

This is a life-saving procedure and any resulting infection can be attended to later by a veterinarian. Oil that is used for drenching affected goats can then be poured or squirted into the rumen via the wound created to release the gas.

There are commercially manufactured stock medicines on the market for bloat treatment, which are superior in action to household cooking oils; where bloat in goats is likely, owners should have these stock medicines on hand in the event of an emergency.


Where goats are grazing on lush legumes, access to roughage in the form of hay or dry pasture should always be provided. The bloating potential of pastures varies enormously. Some pastures may cause bloat in 30 minutes. Others may cause it after 24 hours.

The rule is to increase grazing time gradually, and watch for swelling of the abdomen, particularly during periods of lush pasture growth or when a change in the routine of the herd may cause a variation from the usual pattern of intake of food and water. The time spent grazing legumes must be strictly controlled.

8. Cerebrocortical necrosis (C.C.N.)

This disease is also known as Polioencephalomalacia (P.E.M.) or "Stargazing".

Vitamin B, (thiamine) is essential in goats to allow glucose to move via the blood to the brain. If thiamine is lacking in the diet or destroyed by substances in certain plants (such as bracken fern and nardoo fern) signs of C.C.N. can appear. Goats "stargaze", twitch muscles, then go into convulsions and die. Early in the course of the disease animals may appear blind, wander aimlessly or stand motionless. Thiamine given at this stage will often effect a complete recovery. If the goat has gone down and cannot stand without assistance, there is little advantage gained from treatment.

Diets that have a high molasses content can also predispose to this condition.

© 1981 Vic. Dept. Ag.