Chlamydia in Goats and Other STDs to Watch For
Can humans get STDs from animals? The answer is not what you expect.
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When we think of breeding, we think of babies — not biosecurity — but diseases such as chlamydia in goats can be transmitted sexually. Many hobbyists and small farms are unable to provide separate housing for bucks and rely on borrowing bucks or driveway breeding. Outside breeding is risky, to both sides. Introducing animals, even for a brief encounter can introduce lifelong disease in a herd.
Do you know where your buck has been?
At Kopf Canyon Ranch, we have been asked if we will do outside breeding, but like many breeders, we have a strict policy against it due to biosecurity.
In some outside breeding contracts, precautions are taken requiring animals to be tested and “clean.” There are three primary diseases of concern to goat breeders in the United States — caprine arthritis encephalitis (CAE), caseous lymphadenitis (CL), and Johne’s disease. Many producers do annual bioscreen testing by submitting blood samples to identify carrier animals. While this is good practice, it does not identify other significant diseases that can be transmitted sexually, or by contact at breeding. Bacterial infections like brucellosis, chlamydiosis, leptospirosis, and toxoplasmosis are reproductive diseases that can affect herd health, human health, and result in abortions and stillborn kids.
In his position as a third-generation livestock nutritionist and breeder, Gregory Meiss covers eight states and three countries. “Biosecurity is a grave concern for me — not just for my herd — but for my children. Many of these diseases are transferable to people.”
Anisa Lignell, of Some Chicks Farm in Idaho, who raises both meat and dairy goat breeding stock, agrees emphatically. She will sell a buck, but will not do outside breeding. She has between 40 and 60 breeding head at any given time, and babies year-round. Living in a very rural area, people are quick to help one another, so when a neighbor was having difficulty finding a buck and needed her doe covered late in the season, she consented. “You always want to help — but there is a fine line between helping and jeopardizing your herd.”
Not long after the breeding, she noticed that babies in her herd were starting to get blistery sores on the sides of their mouths. In twelve years of raising goats, she had never seen anything like it. She gave antibiotics to those that were symptomatic, and just when she thought it was gone — another goat would break out with it. When she went to the doctor for a wound on her hand that wouldn’t heal, she learned about orf disease — or “sore mouth” in goats. She had contracted it from the goats with a needle stick. It had to be scraped down to the bone to get the infection out. It was extremely painful and took over a month to heal completely, she recounts. The herd took several months to recover. “I spent an entire season fighting it. It cost me time, pain, doctors’ visits, antibiotics for both me and the herd — and I lost a registered buckling who had so many sores, he couldn’t eat — all because I was trying to do a favor for a friend that I thought I knew, and I thought I knew their herd and health practices. It was a learning experience. I let my guard down, and I paid for it. You look for CAE and all of those things — but there are other things — and the doe had no symptoms at breeding.”
“Many producers underestimate the seriousness of the biosecurity around reproductive disease,” says Gregory. “To put it into perspective, chlamydia (in goats) is transmissible to humans. If you don’t think that is serious, try telling your wife that you have contracted chlamydia, assuring her that you haven’t been unfaithful, and explaining to her that you got it from a goat — which also doesn’t sound very good.”
“Venereal diseases (STDs) are a concern in U.S. goat herds, but due to their silent nature, producers can be less aware of the devastating consequences that they can cause in their herds and breeding programs,” explains Dr. Kathryn Kammerer and Dr. Tasha Bradley of Red Barn Mobile Veterinary Services in Moscow, Idaho. Many goat operations are small, and losses have less of an economic impact, so disease is not as well-managed as with cattle. Rarely are abortions tested and diagnosed, so disease is un- and under-reported.
Gregory confirms the risk, “Reproductive diseases are not as common as we think — but not as rare as we hope. I’ve seen losses in goat herds from 10 to 100%.” He recounts his experience with a large producer’s herd, who also sold breeding stock. Since reproductive failure can also be attributed to nutrition, he was called in to consult on an abortion storm. The producer lost 26% of his kid crop at birth. The cause was not determined on the initial necropsies, so they treated preventatively for the following year. Still losses — though not as high — but in the third year, they were right back up. A culture finally revealed chlamydia in goats, and further, a tetracycline-resistant strain. It had been introduced to the herd by a buck. He cautioned, “Some of these diseases are treatable, others you are out of business overnight. Chlamydia, once you have it — you have it for years to come. There are multiple strains, and immunity doesn’t transfer from strain to strain. Even if you get it under control, you can still put others at risk.”
Red Barn advises that “Because of the potential for STDs to cause such severe effects, prevention is key! We recommend annual Breeding Soundness Exams for all breeding bucks, which would include a physical exam, thorough reproductive tract exam, semen evaluation, and potential venereal disease testing. Biosecurity is vital. Any animal entering your farm, borrowed or not, should undergo a 30-day quarantine period. During this time, you should have a veterinarian evaluate the animal and perform any necessary disease surveillance.”
While not covered in a standard bioscreen, there is blood test screening available for the most common sexually transmitted disease in animals: Brucellosis, Brucella abortus, is also known as Bang’s or undulant fever. Brucellosis results in abortion, retained placenta, mastitis, weight loss, and lameness. It can be transmitted by contaminated pasture, air, blood, urine, milk, semen, and birth tissue. It can live for several months outside of the host animal. While antibiotics can be used for acute infection, there is no cure. Brucellosis is zoonotic, meaning it is also transmissible to humans, and a diagnosis of brucellosis is a reportable condition to the Center for Disease Control. Brucellosis can be tested for in milk, blood, and placental tissue.
Chlamydiosis, Chlamydophila abortus, is another STD often without symptoms and undetected in a herd until multiple abortions occur. While there is no general pre-breeding screening tool for does, it can be tested for in semen. It is spread by reproductive fluids, aborted tissue of infected animals, and carrier animals born to infected animals. Pasture and bedding can also be contaminated and remain so anywhere from a few weeks to a few months depending on environmental conditions. Chlamydia in goats is a reportable condition and listed as zoonotic. Diagnosis is done by laboratory testing of placental tissue. Blood tests are not reliable unless they are taken at the time of abortion and again at three weeks.
Toxoplasmosis, Toxoplasma gondii, is carried by cats and generally infects goats through contaminated feed and water; however, recent studies suggest that it contaminates milk and can be sexually transmitted as well. (Evidence of sexual transmission of Toxoplasma gondii in goats  Santana, Luis Fernando Rossi, Gabriel Augusto Marques Gaspar, Roberta Cordeiro Pinto, Vanessa Marigo Rocha et al.) Symptoms in goats include pregnancy failure, embryonic mummification, stillbirths, and abortions. It is zoonotic. Screening can be done by a blood test or testing of the aborted tissue.
Queensland Fever, or “Q-Fever,” is not a bacterium, but caused by Coxiella burnetti, a spore-like organism. It is spread by ticks, contaminated forage, bedding, milk, urine, feces, and birth and reproductive fluids. There are no symptoms in animals other than abortion. It is resistant to environmental conditions, can survive outside of a host animal, and travel airborne in dust. It is zoonotic and reportable. Blood tests are available to detect Q-Fever. Diagnosis requires testing of aborted tissue.
Leptospirosis, Leptospira spp., while not sexually transmitted, is a reproductive disease that can be contracted through scratches and mucous membranes by contact with contaminated urine, feces, water, soil, forage, and aborted tissue. Symptoms of leptospirosis include abortion, stillbirth, weak kids, and abnormal liver function. It is common in areas after flooding and can be treated. It is a reportable condition and zoonotic. Blood can be tested to screen for leptospirosis.
Many STDs show no symptoms other than abortion, and for that reason are largely undetected and undiagnosed at breeding. To diagnose these conditions and determine course of treatment, a necropsy — or post-mortem examination — of the fetal tissue must be done by a diagnostic laboratory. Many of them are transmissible to humans, so precautions should be used when handling aborted fetal tissue. Any animal that aborts should be isolated form the herd, and the area where the abortion occurred sanitized. The doe may shed bacteria for weeks after aborting.
“It is vital that, if a producer experiences any abortions, they contact their veterinarian for a consultation. This is important because it may help to determine the abortion cause and give your veterinarian information in order to form a plan to decrease abortion rates,” Red Barn. Furthermore, they advise, it is imperative to do culture and sensitivity screenings to know how to treat these diseases. Many strains are becoming resistant and no longer responsive to tetracycline, the drug commonly used by producers. There is growing concern about the ability to treat outbreaks with increased antibiotic resistance than comes from general use.
Red Barn recommends that if a producer is unable to maintain a breeding buck, they should strongly consider utilizing artificial insemination (A.I.) for breeding purposes to minimize the risk of venereal diseases. If this is not a possibility, every buck utilized should have a breeding soundness exam (B.S.E.), including evaluation of the testes and venereal disease testing performed annually, and at least one month prior to breeding.
Herd health history of any virus or disease from both sides of the breeding should be fully disclosed. Be aware that a buck will expose a doe to all of the other herds he has been used to breed.
As breeders, we must all take responsibility for the health and safety of our herds so that the outcome of breeding season is babies and not biohazard.
Breeding Soundness Exam:
- Physical exam
- Reproductive tract exam
- Semen evaluation
- +/- Venereal testing
- CAE is a lentivirus, and can take years to indicate positive on a test or manifest symptoms. It is marked by debilitating arthritis, mastitis, pneumonia, and severe weight loss. Transmission is most common through colostrum and milk, but it can also be airborne in respiratory secretions, and shed and absorbed through mucous membranes. According to the United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, research has shown that the entire reproductive tract of a doe can harbor the CAE virus, making transmission in utero possible. Beyond that, they have identified the virus in semen. There is no evidence that it is transmitted sexually, but producers are advised to be very cautious about using infected animals due to the other routes of transmission by contact. It is not transmissible to humans.
- CL is caused by the bacterium Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis and manifests as internal and external abscesses. It is spread directly by contact with abscess material, or contaminated objects, including soil. If the abscess is in the lungs, it can be transmitted through nasal discharge or coughing. If in the udder, it can contaminate milk. While not sexually transmitted, it can be passed through contact, even without visible abscesses. A vaccine is available, but once vaccinated, an animal will test positive. CL is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted from animals to humans.
- Johne’s (Mycobacterium avium subsp. Paratuberculosis [MAP]) is a wasting disease shed in feces and appearing as extreme weight loss. It is not sexually transmitted, but animals in shared quarters can transmit the disease through contaminated pasture, feed, and water. A contaminated pasture cannot be remediated. It is zoonotic, reportable to the Centers for Disease Control, and linked to Crohn’s disease in humans.
Originally published in the September/October 2019 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.