“What did she eat this time?”
Gastrointestinal Blockages in Goats
Do you remember the 1950s cartoons depicting goats calmly munching on a tin can? How did that stereotype arise?
That’s right: from reality. Since goats are curious animals, they have an unfortunate tendency to cater to their curiosity with their mouths and ingest many things they shouldn’t. This can result in everything from comical mishaps to tragedy through gastrointestinal blockages.
Weird Things Goats Eat
Because goats are browsers, they are predisposed toward culinary experimentation and therefore gastrointestinal blockages. Every goat owner has stories to tell about some weird things their animals have eaten. Here are some examples which, thankfully, did not require veterinary intervention:
• Hot Tamales candy, Doritos, Mountain Dew (sucked up through a straw, no less!), baby wipes, plastic shopping bags, frayed ends of plastic tarps, cigarette butts, paper, cardboard boxes.
• Lead rope, dangling bracelet charms, drawstrings from clothing, chicken nuggets, hair (watch your ponytail!), hair accessories (barrettes, clips, etc.).
• Earbuds, feed bags, rubber gloves (retrieved before they consumed the whole thing), coffee, insulation off tractor wires.
• An entire (large) aloe vera plant (apparently the culprit had the “runs” for days), jalapeños (the whole plant, including peppers), straws (snatched from drinks), leather gloves.
• Dog food, broken clay pot pieces, coffee containers, rubber washers, rake handles, cups, and zip ties.
First Things First
While the above list thankfully resulted in no gastrointestinal blockages, the goat owners may not be as fortunate next time.
To avoid tragedy instead of comical mishaps, the first line of defense is to make sure foreign objects aren’t within reach. This means scouring pastures for trash, removing strings from hay bales, picking up glass, metal, or plastic bits that are small enough to swallow, and monitoring what blows over from neighboring properties. Make sure grain bins are secured so curious goats can’t gorge on the contents.
Because goats are active, playful creatures, it can be frightening to see one acting strange. If you see an animal standing with its head and neck extended, grunting, with its “elbows” pointed out, you may be seeing symptoms of hardware disease.
Also called “traumatic reticuloperitonitis,” hardware disease occurs when a ruminant accidentally swallows a nail or piece of wire, which settles in the lower front part of the rumen (reticulum). Occasionally the metal item can pierce the reticulum and migrate to the heart or lungs, with dire results.
Symptoms include standing at a slant with their forequarters elevated, a tense, tuck-up abdomen, or an arched or rigid back. Listen for grunts during breathing, which may be shallow and rapid (indicating pain). Their heart rate may be elevated, their appetite decreased, and they may show signs of colic.
Cattle are far more prone to hardware disease for the simple reason that goats are browsers (rather than grazers) and are not as likely to swallow things without realizing it. (In contrast, goats pick and choose the unorthodox things they swallow.) However, this doesn’t mean caprines are unaffected by the condition.
In cattle, hardware disease may be treated prophylactically by inserting a magnet into the reticulum. Goats don’t respond to this the same way, and treatment may involve surgery. Consult a veterinarian if you suspect an animal has swallowed a metal object.
Ruminal tympany, otherwise known as bloat, is more common in sheep and cattle, but any goat with a mature functioning rumen is not immune.
As a brief diversion into anatomy, the rumen is a large fermentation vat containing microorganisms that aid in food digestion. One of the byproducts of the digestion process is gas, which healthy animals burp out.
There are two types of bloat in goats, both of which can be life-threatening if not treated. It seems strange to think of a goat losing its life because it can’t burp, but there you go.
Frothy bloat results from consuming lush legumes, either as new hay or grazing in fields, or if the goats have been turned out to legumes and wet grass pastures. A “stable” froth happens when digestion of these foods proceeds normally, but frothy bloat can occur if the goat overeats these foods. Sudden access to grain — as when a goat gets into the grain barrel — can also result in frothy bloat.
Free-gas bloat occurs when a goat’s esophagus is blocked by carrots, apples, grain, or other impediments. It can also happen if an animal is wedged in an abnormal position that prevents the goat from burping, resulting in gas buildup.
Signs of bloat are more specific than hardware disease. The animal becomes restless and loses appetite. It will drool, and the left side of the stomach becomes progressively distended. The animal may bite or kick at its abdomen. Untreated, the animal will grow increasingly uncomfortable, experience respiratory distress (since the distended rumen presses against the lungs), collapse, and die.
Treatment of bloat must be carefully administered by inserting a stomach tube. Do NOT attempt this unless you’re familiar with the procedure; call a vet if in doubt. In the case of free-gas bloat (when the esophagus is blocked), this often cures the problem; but if not, a veterinarian may need to trocharize the rumen. Do not attempt to aggressively force the stomach tube down the throat to relieve the blockage, as damage to the esophagus may result.
For frothy bloat, drenching with mineral oil (100-200 cc) may help break up the froth, but DO NOT drench without a stomach tube, or the mineral oil may end up in the lungs. Massaging the flank and walking the goat may also help.
Of course, the best medicine for bloat is prevention. Introduce goats to lush pastures gradually and for short periods. Offer bloat blocks (which offer supplements to prevent froth). Before putting them on pasture, feed them hay. Avoid feeding finely ground concentrates. Keep goats out of grain storage bins. If a goat tends to bolt her share of grain, spread it out over a large area so she won’t choke. Remove windfall fruits from under trees that may obstruct an esophagus.
Some people use probiotics to maintain rumen health and administer probiotics in conjunction with any dietary change as a preventative measure against rumen disorders and help avoid gastrointestinal blockages. This may include adding raw apple cider vinegar to their water or using an oral probiotics gel.
Prevention is Best
Gastrointestinal blockages in goats can be dramatic and life-threatening. Still, thankfully they are largely avoidable with proper precautions, including making sure your animals don’t have access to garbage that can do them harm. The goal is to make sure your goats never fulfill the caricatures of those 1950s cartoons.