Preventing and Treating Coccidiosis in Goats
When you see diarrhea in baby goats, coccidiosis could be the problem.
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If you see diarrhea among your goat herd — especially among the kids — then it’s likely that your animals are suffering from coccidiosis. Coccidiosis in goats is both common and easily prevented. Treated, it’s minor. Untreated, it can kill young animals and have lifelong health effects on survivors.
Coccidiosis is an infection of the coccidian parasite Eimeria, a common protozoan. There are 12 different kinds of this protozoan that affect goats, but only two cause problems (E. arloingi and E. ninakohlyakimovae). Other species of Eimeria are found in chickens, cattle, dogs, rabbits, etc. Because it is species-specific, goats cannot pass the parasite to or receive it from other livestock species. (One species of Eimeria crosses between sheep and goats. Veterinarians don’t recommend housing sheep and goats together because they share too many parasites.)
The life cycle of Eimeria partially takes place in the intestinal cells. During growth and multiplication, coccidia destroys large numbers of intestinal cells (hence diarrhea as a symptom). The coccidia then produce eggs (oocysts), which pass in feces. The oocysts must undergo a period of development called sporulation after being excreted to become capable of infecting another host. When an animal ingests the sporulated oocysts, “spores” are released and enter intestinal cells, and the cycle repeats.
The parasite passes through fecal-to-oral contact (never through milk or in-utero). Illness can occur anywhere from five to 13 days after eating oocysts in feces. Coccidiosis is especially hard on young animals between three weeks and five months of age.
When present in small numbers, coccidia are rarely a problem. The severity of the infection depends on the number of coccidia that invade the intestines. For this reason, kids are most susceptible since their immune systems are not fully developed. Since kids tend to “mouth” anything in their surroundings — including fecal pellets — it’s common for the parasites to take up residence inside their undeveloped systems.
Healthy, young nursing kids are often fine until weaning or other stress factors, such as changing foods, transporting, weather changes, or crowded conditions. In the case of weaning, kids are suddenly deprived of antibody protection from their mothers’ milk, and the shock to their young immune systems can bring on a full-blown case of coccidiosis.
Minimizing the Risk of Coccidiosis in Goats
Coccidiosis is highly contagious and thrives in warm, wet conditions such as dirty wet pens and confined housing. Goats in crowded conditions will automatically be more susceptible than goats on pasture. Even sunshine in the barn helps since ultraviolet rays are damaging to eggs, and sunlight will help dry out pens.
The best treatment is prevention, which is why good husbandry practices are essential. Use feeders instead of feeding on the ground. Keep pens dry and clean.
Adult animals are unlikely to get sick since they usually develop immunity to the coccidian as kids. However, if they never had the disease, adding coccidiostats to their diet can prevent illness. Coccidoistats include amprolium (Corid), decoquinate (Deccox), lasalocid (Bovatec), or monensin (Rumensin). Some products have Rumensin and Deccox mixed in the feed.
To prevent a coccidiosis outbreak in young kids, offer babies a coccidiostat called Albon when they begin eating solid foods (two to three weeks of age). Treat them again at about six weeks of age, after which they can be given feed with a coccidiostat. (Note: Feed that contains coccidiostats can be deadly to horses.)
Diagnosis of Coccidiosis in Goats
Diarrhea in young animals does not automatically mean coccidiosis. Other conditions with similar symptoms include salmonellosis, viral infections, cryptosporidium, and worm infestation. The only way to make a definitive diagnosis of coccidiosis in goats is by doing a fecal float test. An egg count of 5000 or higher is considered clinically significant. Confirming the diagnosis will prevent treatment for the wrong condition.
Ironically, kids may show coccidiosis symptoms before Eimeria reaches the oocyst stage, so a negative fecal test does not necessarily mean a kid does not have coccidia in their system.
If a coccidiosis outbreak occurs, the only thing that will prevent it from spreading through the entire herd is to keep sick animals isolated. Don’t underestimate the persistence of this parasite; eggs are resistant to many disinfectants and can survive more than a year in moist, dark environments. The eggs die in freezing temperatures.
Coccidiosis classifies into clinical and subclinical types. In subclinical coccidiosis (the most common type), the animal appears normal but may experience slower growth, less feed intake, and reduced feed conversion. While “subclinical” may sound less severe, it’s costlier in the long run, especially in commercial herds.
Clinical coccidiosis in goats is a serious condition requiring immediate treatment. Symptoms include rough coats, dirty tails from diarrhea, reduced feed intake, weakness, and anemia. Kids will strain while passing feces, and diarrhea can be watery or contain mucous and blackish-colored blood. (Some infected animals get constipated and die without experiencing diarrhea.) Other symptoms include a hunched appearance, fever, weight loss (or poor growth), loss of appetite, and dehydration. Untreated, the animal will die.
Treatment for Coccidiosis in Goats
Prompt treatment is essential to ensure that the intestinal lining is not permanently damaged, after which the goat’s lifelong ability to absorb nutrients is reduced. Veterinarians usually prescribe one of two treatments, both of which run for five days: Albon (sulfadimethoxine) or CORID (amprolium). Note: CORID inhibits vitamin B1 (thiamine) production, which is vital to rumen function. If your vet prescribes CORID, give vitamin B1 injections at the same time.
A newer alternative is Baycox (toltrazuril coccidiocide), which was developed to fight both coccidia stages. It works on the whole lifespan of the protozoa. It requires one dose, and in the case of an outbreak, you may repeat it in 10 days. Administer as a drench. Use as either prevention (at a lower dosage) or treatment ( a higher dosage). As with all drugs, work with your veterinarian for proper treatment.
Whatever else you do, be sure to keep your animals hydrated with clean water and electrolytes to prevent dehydration.
When your goat is sick, avoid feeding grains since they are too difficult to digest. Green leaves are best, followed by hay. Probios is a product designed for ruminants and will add healthy bacteria back into the gastrointestinal tract.
Coccidiosis in goats is an inevitable fact of life and can never be truly prevented. The best thing is to keep babies clean, dry, and stress-free. If an outbreak is caught quickly, and the goats are treated promptly and kept hydrated, they usually recover fully within a few days. Be vigilant.
Originally published in the 2021 special issue of Goat Journal — Goat Health from Head to Hoof Vol. 2 — and regularly vetted for accuracy.