A Tail to Tell

When your goat's tail could indicate a serious problem.

A Tail to Tell

Reading Time: 4 minutes

One of my favorite sights on the farm is when I greet our herd every morning at breakfast. Their ears go up, their tails wag, and I swear that I can almost see them smiling! But sometimes their tails can tell us an entirely different story, and it’s one that you really want to pay attention to.  

Scours is a fancy name for goat diarrhea. Your goat’s once-happy tail may now be coated in liquid fecal matter that ranges in color from pasty white to watery brown. Unfortunately common, scours may be brought on by a variety of stressors including transportation, sudden feed change, unsanitary living conditions, vaccinations, and more. One of the primary concerns with scours is dehydration, so quick treatment is key. Goat electrolytes and a call to your vet are in order if you suspect severe dehydration.  

A fishtail braid might be a stylish way to put up your hair, but a fishtail on a goat is quite the opposite. Copper deficiencies in goats used to be predominantly an East Coast affliction but are being seen more and more across the United States. Copper affects red blood cell formation, hair pigmentation, connective tissues, immune system function, the central nervous system, and even bone growth. Signs of copper deficiency include anemia, dull and rough hair coat, diarrhea, weight loss, atrophied muscles, bleached coat color, and fishtail. Copper supplements are commonly found at feed stores and can be a great annual (or biannual) preventative if your herd isn’t getting enough from their diet, but be careful if you also keep sheep in the herd or pasture because they cannot have added copper.  

Advanced fishtail from copper deficiency. Photo from Karen Kopf.

Discharge or blood on your pregnant doe’s tail could mean imminent labor (thick, stringy mucus) or a sign of an aborted pregnancy (blood under the tail and/or on the upper part of the udder).  

If you’re expecting kids, these are signs that something big is going on and you need to take a closer look. If you think your doe is in labor, check for loose pelvic ligaments, look to see if she’s “dropped,” and pay attention to her behavior. She may be more vocal than normal, or she may want privacy. She may be restless, refuse to eat, or she may gorge herself up until delivery. (Our Toggenburg chewed her cud and ate hay in between pushes!) Unfortunately, if your doe has or is in the process of aborting her pregnancy, the symptoms will vary depending on the cause. Moldy hay, a well-placed head bump or kick to the belly by a herd mate, and infections like pinkeye, salmonella, or toxoplasmosis, can all be causes of a lost pregnancy.  

There are many types of parasites, both internal and external, that can use your goat’s tail as their calling card. Coccidia, roundworms, and tapeworms will all wreak havoc on your goat from within, and mites, lice, and flies will do the same from the outside.  

  • Coccidiosis is usually a result of overcrowded, wet and/or dirty pens, and unclean water. The coccidia parasite is transmitted via fecal to oral contact. Your goat may appear to scour (see above), but diarrhea will become chronic, watery, and filled with mucus and dark blood. Over-the-counter dewormers cannot prevent or cure coccidiosis. A fecal sample should be taken to confirm that it is indeed coccidia, and there are many antibiotics and other medications that may be available depending on your region and your vet’s recommendation. Prevention is much easier than curing a coccidia outbreak; clean living quarters, fresh food, and clean water will go a long way toward keeping your herd free of this parasite.  
  • Goat worms are a common affliction, particularly in pastured animals. Signs of worms include lethargy, rough coat/tail, weight loss, poor or no appetite, diarrhea, and anemia. A fecal test will tell you which worm you are dealing with and will help determine the most effective treatment. Many over-the-counter dewormers are no longer effective in some areas due to overuse, so it is very important to research before you give treatment.   
  • Chewing and sucking mites and lice can drive your goat beyond distraction, and can result in coat damage, skin lesions, flakey skin, anemia, exhaustion, and poor growth rates. Look for skin lesions and damage from scratching on the face, flanks, and tail; specifics will vary on species as well as region. There are many preventative powders and sprays available, as well as other more natural preventatives as well as treatments.  

Enterotoxemia is also known as “overeating disease.” It’s caused by two strains of bacteria called Clostridium perfringens that release a toxin as their population grows within the animal’s intestines. That toxin causes damage to the intestines as well as other organs, and moves with deadly speed. Signs that your goat may be fighting off enterotoxemia include lethargy, stomach pain (your goat may kick uncomfortably at their belly, repeatedly lay down and get back up, lay on its side and pant, or cry out in pain), and scours. In an advanced case, the animal may lose the ability to stand up, and will extend its legs out with its head and neck extended back towards its withers. At this point, death can occur within minutes or sometimes hours. Prevention is often more successful than treatment, and there is a vaccine available. It typically can be found in feed stores or with your vet; it is often combined with a tetanus vaccine and is commonly referred to as a three-way or CD-T vaccine.  

As goat owners, we always want our goats to wag their tails because they are happy to see us (and their breakfast). Unfortunately, that’s not always the case, and things like scours, worms, mites, lice, toxins, and even a lost pregnancy can be very detrimental to your herd’s health and wellbeing. This is only a short list of stories your goat’s tail might be telling you, so if you think something is off or that you recognize any of these signs, it’s time to get into research mode and maybe even call your vet.  

Happy tails! 

Originally published in the Goat Journal 2020 special subscriber issueGoat Health, From Head to Hoof and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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