Back from the Vet: Clostridial Diseases in Goats

Back from the Vet: Clostridial Diseases in Goats

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If you have owned goats for any amount of time, likely, you have used or heard of a clostridial vaccine. Clostridial vaccinations are the only universally recommended vaccinations in goats. While other vaccinations may be indicated for your herd, clostridial vaccinations, particularly those combinations containing Clostridium perfringens and Clostridium tetani are always recommended to be used as part of your herd health plan. 

Clostridia are bacterial organisms, characterized by their ability to survive as dormant spores. Clostridial bacteria are also known for their production of toxic chemicals. The toxic chemicals that are produced by these bacteria are the cause of disease seen in animals. Because of that, clostridial diseases are not contagious, or spread from animal to animal.  

Clostridium perfringens has multiple subtypes. Those that most commonly cause disease in goats are Clostridium perfringens type C and D. Clostridial bacteria normally live in the intestines of healthy animals at low numbers. Disease occurs when the animal becomes stressed and the bacteria grows at a rapid rate. The stress is usually due to an increase in the quality and quantity of food intake, whether grain, milk, or pasture. During this overgrowth, the bacteria produce an abundance of toxins. These toxins create a condition in the ill animal known as enterotoxemia. 

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Signs of enterotoxemia in animals can range from decreased food intake, neurologic disease, diarrhea, colic, lethargy, and even acute death. Animals become ill very rapidly and are often found dead without signs of illness having been seen; this is especially true of type D. Animals suffering from Clostridium perfringens type A commonly are seen to have bloody diarrhea. Entertoxemia affects goats that experience changes within their diet, notably, an increase in starch, sugar, or protein intake. This increase in nutrient intake causes the overgrowth of clostridial bacteria.  Enterotoxemia can affect goats of all ages but is commonly found in young kids and those in a feed lot setting. However, even adult goats can suffer from enterotoxemia if not properly protected.  

Treatment for enterotoxemia involves supportive care such as oral electrolytes, as well as antibiotics. Due to the rapid nature of the disease, many animals may require intensive care, such as IV fluids and hospitalization. There is also an antiserum that is available to inactivate toxins within the body.   

Diagnosis of clostridial enterotoxemia can be made by microscopic examination of intestinal contents, as well as assessment of clinical signs. Animals with increased ingestion of concentrates and neurologic signs can be assumed to be suffering from clostridial disease. Confirmation of this disease involves lab assessment of intestinal fluid. When experiencing acute losses in your animals, as always, it is imperative to consult your herd veterinarian to obtain an accurate diagnosis.  

Prevention of clostridial enteritis is much more successful than treatment. The key to prevention is establishing a vaccination protocol within your herd. Naive or young animals should be vaccinated twice, two to four weeks apart. All animals should then be vaccinated at least yearly. Some herds with increased risk may even require more frequent vaccination. In order to better transfer immunity to kids, vaccinations to does should be given two months prior to kidding. The second key to prevention is feed management. Changes in diet should be made slowly, either in addition of concentrate or introduction to pasture. Kids nursing from does with heavy milk production should have limited access, especially singles. Heavy milking does may also be fed a heavier roughage diet to decrease their production.  

Clostridium tetani, the other component of the CD&T vaccine, is the causative bacterial agent of tetanus, or lock jaw. Clostridium tetani is found in soil, particularly cultivated, as well as the digestive tracts of healthy animals. The bacteria enter into animal tissues through wounds and multiples within necrotic, or dead, tissue. The bacteria release a neurotoxin that causes muscle spasms. These spasms, depending upon the manner of toxin spread may be ascending up the spinal cord, or spread to the brain and cause descending paralysis. 

Clostridium tetani can enter through any wound, including castration and disbudding wounds. It can even be contracted through band castration wounds. The bacteria incubate for seven to14 days before causing disease. Initial signs of tetanus include localized stiffness of muscles, which progresses to more generalized stiffness in as quickly as 1 day. Animals can show signs of stiffness of their chewing muscles, or lock jaw, as well as neck and limb muscle stiffness that gives them a “sawhorse” stance. Affected animals are often sweaty and fall over when startled. As the disease progresses the toxin can affect the muscles of the respiratory system or heart resulting in death.  

Diagnosis of tetanus is based primarily on clinical signs and a history of wounds or surgical procedures. The diagnosis can be confirmed by the presence of toxin in the blood. Treatment involves supportive care, antibiotics, and anti-serum. Animals with severe clinical signs will require hospitalization. The mortality rate for tetanus infections is as high as 80%. If wounded animals are noted prior to experiencing signs of tetanus, efforts can be made to prevent the infection. These animals can be given active immunity via tetanus antitoxin. They should also receive the vaccination at the same time. The antitoxin provides immunity for up to two weeks, and the vaccination should be boostered in a month’s time.  

Just as in the case of clostridial enteritis, prevention is a much more successful than treatment of tetanus. A vaccination protocol is imperative to prevention. Young animals, or those with no vaccine history, should be vaccinated twice, two to four weeks apart. Vaccination should occur prior to surgical procedures, in order for the animal to develop immunity. Vaccines given at the time of castration or banding do not allow time for the animal’s immune system to react. After surgical procedure, animals should be turned out into a clean environment, such as a grassy pasture.  

Clostridial diseases have a high mortality rate, with treatment also being unsuccessful. As is often the case, the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” rings true. If your herd does not currently have a vaccination protocol for clostridial diseases, now is the time to establish one. Contact your veterinarian and determine what is best for your farm.

Katie Estill, DVM is a veterinarian consultant for Goat JournalCountryside & Small Stock Journal, and Countryside Network. She works with goats and other large livestock at Desert Trails Veterinary Services in Winnemucca, Nevada. 

Originally published in the May/June 2019 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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