Rabies vs. Your Goat
Can you possibly be infected with rabies through your goat’s milk?
Recently, a goat in South Carolina potentially exposed nine people to the rabies virus. Rabies is one of those diseases that strike instant fear in the hearts of people when they learn that they could have been exposed. There are a couple of reasons why rabies is so feared, mostly because by the time you know that you have it, you will certainly die from it. This brings us to the questions of how is rabies transmitted plus should goat owners consider vaccinating against it?
Rabies brings to mind images of vicious dogs baring their teeth with saliva foaming from their mouth. This image is fairly accurate, at least for dogs and similar animals. The common symptoms of rabies include increased aggression, increased salivation, paralysis and muscle spasms especially of the throat muscles (causing the drooling and foaming), and confusion. These obvious symptoms happen in the end stage of the disease when the animal is near death. However, the rabies infection likely began three to seven weeks earlier. In some animals, rabies can remain latent (though still contagious) for up to seven months. When an animal contracts rabies, the virus often stays in the muscle for some time before entering the nerves of the body. In the nerves, the virus is able to hide from the animal’s immune system as it replicates and travels to the brain. By the time the rabies virus reaches the brain, the infection can no longer be treated. At this point, the infection progresses more rapidly, forcing the host animal’s body to create more of the virus to spread, concentrating in the saliva. Because this infection causes inflammation of the brain, symptoms such as headache, mild fever, and fatigue are usually present. Other symptoms can include sore throat, cough, and increased tear and saliva production. Within two to 10 days, symptoms progress to the classic signs of rabies with spasms of the throat muscles making it difficult if not impossible to swallow, hyperactivity, aggression, irregular heartbeat, high fever, and confusion. The disease climaxes with convulsions leading to coma and death. Some animals, however, never become aggressive and only display signs such as confusion and paralysis before dying (Silverstein, Silverstein, & Silverstein, 1994). Either way, this is a horrible way to die and one of the reasons why rabies is so feared.
If it is known or suspected that a person or domestic animal has been exposed to rabies, they can be given a series of vaccines plus antibodies against the rabies virus. This must be done before any symptoms present, but it is nearly always successful when done soon after exposure.
It is commonly known that rabies is typically transmitted through the bite of an infected animal. What is less commonly known is that you can contract rabies without ever being bitten. If infected saliva comes into contact with a mucous membrane such as the eyes, inside the nose, or mouth, the virus can still enter the body. This is the main reason why those nine people who had been in contact with the goat had to receive treatment for rabies even though the goat never bit them. Rabies can also be transmitted after death via nervous tissue such as the spinal cord and brain. This is only likely to happen if you are butchering the animal for consumption or performing an autopsy, possibly to confirm suspected rabies.
It is unknown if the South Carolina goat was producing milk at the time that it contracted rabies, but if it had, could that milk have infected people? That is a question very much on the minds of scientists and medical providers alike. To put it frankly, we don’t know, and we don’t know how to find out in an ethical manner. Most authorities on rabies believe that the virus cannot transmit through milk because we have no proven cases where it has happened. There are a few anecdotal cases where both mother and suckling were diagnosed with rabies, but it is unknown if the suckling was exposed via the milk, via the mother’s saliva and mucous membranes, or if they were both infected by the same source. Because it is plausible that the virus could be transmitted via milk, anyone exposed in such a manner would be advised to undergo treatment for rabies exposure. However, we do know that the rabies virus cannot survive pasteurization. If there is doubt, then pasteurize the milk before consumption. Yet, if you knew for certain that an animal was infected, would you really feel comfortable drinking the milk at all? The same goes for the meat of the animal. While we know that the virus cannot survive safe cooking temperatures, do you really want to eat the meat of a known rabid animal? (Kaur, 2017)
Knowing that rabies is found across every continent except Antarctica, should you vaccinate your goat against rabies as a preventive measure? That is a personal decision, but you should be aware of risks and benefits. While there is virtually no risk associated with a goat receiving a vaccination against rabies, there is the financial cost which will occur every year with the booster. You also must evaluate the likelihood of your goat ever being exposed to rabies. You can access the CDC website to see if rabies is endemic in your particular area. There is also always the risk of encountering the same situation seen in South Carolina where it was not known that the goat had been exposed and thereby placed the family at risk of exposure. Can we put a price on protecting our families?
Andersen County Goat Potentially Exposes Nine People to Rabies. (n.d.). Retrieved March 20, 2019, from South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control:
Kaur, R. (2017). Is Rabies Transmissible Through Milk? Global Scientific Journal, 105-110.
Silverstein, A., Silverstein, V., & Silverstein, R. (1994). Diseases and People: Rabies. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc.
Originally published in the September/October 2019 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.