Roy’s Victory over Sore Mouth in Goats
Infectious Ecthyma aka Orf in Goats
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Sore mouth in goats goes by many names: scabby mouth, contagious ecthyma, contagious pustular dermatitis (CPD), and orf disease. The parapoxvirus, also called the orf virus, causes sores painful sores on the skin of sheep and goats. They can appear anywhere but usually show up on the lips or muzzle, or the teats of nursing does. Orf is zoonotic, meaning it can be transmitted to humans.
To understand sore mouth in goats, we follow Roy, a nine-year-old Nigerian Dwarf buck show goat from Odom Family Farm in Lakeport California. Roy contracted the disease in June of 2019.
From Exposure to First Symptoms
Sarah believes Roy got exposed at a show on June 1st. When they returned, she isolated the goats who had been to the show. Whenever any goat leaves her property, Sarah isolates to prevent the accidental spread of goat diseases. Five days later, Sarah’s son called to tell her that Roy had some small sores on his mouth. When he described them, she decided it sounded like urine scald pimples. When in rut, bucks pee all over themselves, including their faces, to attract females. Sometimes that urine can cause a rash. Roy’s had problems with this before and was headed into rut.
“He’s very talented with his ability to whizz all over his face,” Sarah says. “I asked my son to please check and see if any other bucks had the same sores. He said no. That’s how we missed the initial outbreak.”
According to Dr. Berrier at the Colorado Serum Company, in less than a week after exposure, the goat starts showing lesions, usually around its mouth. The first sign most people see is the scabs, as they are more visible. Sometimes they notice redness and small fluid-filled swellings called vesicles.
Eleven days later, Sarah’s son told her Roy’s sores were much worse. The other four goats quarantined with Roy, as well as two from an adjacent pen, now presented with sores. Sarah sent a text to her vet with a picture of Roy’s face, saying, “What the heck is this?”
The vet asked questions, determined it was sore mouth, and told Sarah she needed to vaccinate the rest of her herd.
Once a goat shows clinical symptoms, normal sore mouth in goats lasts one to four weeks. It progresses from vesicles to pustules to scabs, then the scabs fall off leaving no further signs. In some cases, complications arise from secondary infection or severe weight loss, especially in kids as the lesions make it painful to eat. Sometimes dams refuse to let kids nurse when lesions transfer to their teats. Sore mouth treatment may include softening ointments, soft foods, and antibiotics for secondary infections.
Although sores appear most often around the goat mouth and on the lips, they can be anywhere on the body. Roy got them both on his lips and eyes.
Sarah set about vaccinating the 43 unexposed goats. “It’s not an injectable, it’s a live vaccine,” she said. “So you actually have to physically give them a wound and put the live virus in the wound and then rub it in with a brush. You have to raise up a raspberry, kind of like road rash, but you don’t want it to ooze or bleed, because that pushes the virus out.” She soon discovered the tool that came with the kit was made for orf in sheep and didn’t work on goats. The Odoms experimented until they settled on using 60-grit sandpaper.
The instructions recommend vaccinating under the tail, in the ear, or on the inner thigh. On Sarah’s show milkers, none of these were good options. Nobody wants sores in their faces while milking, and identification is tattooed in the ears. She ended up using a Bic razor to shave inside their front legs and applied the vaccine there. After vaccinating, you need to check for thick scabbing at 48 and 72 hours. No scabbing, no take. At 48 hours, 12 goats lacked sufficient scabs, so Sarah ordered more vaccines. She re-checked at 72 hours and six of the twelve showed the right kind of scabbing. All the goats that needed re-vaccinating were originally vaccinated before they discovered the sandpaper method.
Severe Persistent Orf in Goats
Dr. John Walker, Professor and Resident Director of Research at Texas A&M Agrilife Research and Extension Center, introduced me to a new serious form of sore mouth in goats called severe persistent orf (SPO), malignant orf, or severe sore mouth. In 1992, the first reported cases of SPO appeared in Malaysia. Forty kids developed the disease with 65% mortality. In 2003, SPO was recorded in Boer kids in Texas.
Dr. Walker wrote, “While typical orf causes scabs on the lips and nostrils, severe persistent orf causes widespread scabs on lips, nostrils, ears, eyes, feet, vulva, and potentially other places including internal organs. This severe form of sore mouth can last three months or longer and results in 10% or higher mortality.” He and his team worked to collect goat sore mouth scabs from both the normal and severe types and get the genome sequenced to see if the viruses themselves differ. They also collected DNA from the goats to check for any genetic defect causing the goats to be more susceptible. “We never got that done,” he told me. “You need a couple hundred samples to do those sorts of analyses, and we were never able to get enough to do it. But if you look at the literature, almost all of the reports of severe sore mouth in goats are related to animals that have been stressed in some way.”
Roy suffered a more severe case than normal, but luckily he did not seem to have SPO. He recovered fully in just over six weeks.
Stigma Surrounding Sore Mouth in Goats
Sarah worries about the level of stigma and shunning she sees connected to sore mouth. One woman confided about sore mouth in her herd. “She made me get super close to her and whispered it to me like it was some kind of evil thing.” The night that she realized Roy had it, Sarah was scheduled to pick up a new buck. She called the seller to tell him she couldn’t pick the goat up that night, but still wanted him. The man told her, “I don’t want you on my property. I don’t want you anywhere near my house. I could meet you in town. No, I can’t even meet you in town because I would touch you.” This seems an odd reaction for one of the most benign of goat illnesses. Sarah says, “I just wish people would stop whispering about it. I mean, for goodness sake. It’s not fatal. It’s just a really big inconvenience.”
As for Roy, he doesn’t care what people say about him. He isn’t concerned about the need for open and honest communication, especially about more serious cases. He just wants what he has always wanted — treats and cuddles.
To see more of Roy’s story, visit https://www.facebook.com/A-Journey-through-Sore-Mouth-109116993780826/
Originally published in the Goat Journal 2020 special subscriber issue — Goat Health, From Head to Hoof — and regularly vetted for accuracy.