Rabies in Goats
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by Cheryl K. Smith Rabies is a fatal viral disease affecting warm-blooded animals’ brains and central nervous systems. Still fairly rare in goats in the U.S., a few are diagnosed with rabies every year. So far, these cases have been limited to only a few states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported nine cases of sheep and goats combined in 2020 and 10 in 2019. The only rabies-free state is Hawaii. This contrasts with countries such as Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya, where rabies infection in goats is only second or third to that in dogs.
In 2022, a goat in South Carolina was confirmed to have rabies, exposing 12 other goats and a person. The exposed goats were quarantined, and the individual was referred to their healthcare provider. In 2019, nine people in that state were exposed to an infected goat. Although South Carolina does not require that goats or other livestock be vaccinated against rabies, they recommend it.
Because dogs in the U.S. are required to be vaccinated, they are no longer the most common vector. According to the CDC, 91% of rabies cases reported are in wildlife, and more than 60% of these are in raccoons or bats, with the next most common wild animals being skunks and foxes.
The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association reported that, in 2020, just eight states accounted for more than 60% of all reported animal rabies cases. The highest number was in Texas.
How Is It Spread?
Rabies virus is spread through saliva, but can also be found in spinal fluid, respiratory mucus, and milk. Goats can become infected when they have direct contact with the saliva of an animal that has been infected. The most common cause is a bite from an infected animal, although it can also be airborne and transmitted through respiratory droplets. Where the bite occurs can make a difference in how quickly symptoms arise. For instance, a bite on the face will affect the brain more rapidly because the virus has less distance to travel, while one on a hind leg may not even be noticeable by the time the goat begins to exhibit symptoms. The lack of a noticeable bite is not enough to rule out rabies.
The incubation period for rabies in goats is 2–17 weeks, and the disease lasts from 5–7 days. The virus first replicates in muscle tissue, then spreads to the nerves and central nervous system. Once the virus is in the brain, the goat begins to show signs of the disease.
How is Rabies Manifested?
There are three possible manifestations of rabies: furious, dumb, and paralytic. The most commonly reported in goats is the furious form (but this may be because the vast number of cases reported worldwide are in Asia or Africa, where furious rabies affects dogs). Symptoms include aggression, excitability, restlessness, excessive crying, difficulty swallowing, and excessive salivation or drooling.
The dumb form of the disease is just like it sounds: the animal is depressed, lies down, is not interested in eating or drinking, and drools.
With the paralytic form of rabies, the animal may start walking in circles, make pedaling movements with the legs, isolate, and become paralyzed and unable to eat or drink.
Consider rabies when a goat exhibits neurological symptoms or behavior. Wear gloves when handling that goat, though it is more likely to have polioencephalomalacia (PEM) or listeriosis. If rabies is suspected because the goat is in an endemic area or wildlife known to carry rabies has been near the herd, contact a veterinarian for evaluation and testing. Rabies can only be definitively diagnosed by necropsy, in which the brain is removed and studied.
There is no known treatment for an animal infected with rabies, so a goat believed to have it must be euthanized. Quarantine other goats in the herd and other livestock that may have been exposed to ensure they have not gotten infected.
How Can I Prevent Rabies In My Goats?
Remember that rabies is still quite rare in goats. There are some steps you can take to help ensure that it stays that way.
- Rabies vaccinations are mandated in cats, dogs, and ferrets, so the first step is to ensure that these pets are up to date on vaccines.
- Provide adequate housing and fencing for your goats to keep wildlife out.
- Don’t leave feed out that may attract wild animals.
- Be aware of nocturnal animals such as bats, raccoons, or skunks out during the day or acting strangely.
- If a wild animal bites a goat, quarantine it, and contact your vet.
- If a goat develops neurological symptoms, always wear gloves when treating it, isolate the goat, and contact your veterinarian.
In endemic areas, some vets recommend vaccinating goats for rabies. No rabies vaccine is labeled for goats; however, they can be vaccinated off-label beginning at three months of age with the Merial sheep rabies vaccine (Imrab®). Re-vaccination is recommended annually. Talk to your vet if you have concerns — only veterinarians may give rabies shots. The withdrawal/withholding period for milk and meat is 21 days.
- Smith, Mary. 2016. “Vaccinating Goats.” p. 2. http://goatdocs.ansci.cornell.edu/Resources/GoatArticles/GoatHealth/VaccinatingGoats.pdf
- American Humane. 2022. “Rabies Facts & Prevention Tips.” www.americanhumane.org/fact-sheet/rabies-facts-prevention-tips/#:~:text=Dogs%2C%20cats%20and%20ferrets%20any,and%20observed%20for%2045%20days.
- Colorado Veterinary Medical Association. 2020. “Goat Diagnosed with Rabies in Yuma County.” www.colovma.org/industry-news/goat-diagnosed-with-rabies-in-yuma-county/.
- Ma, X, S Bonaparte, M Toro, et al. 2020. “Rabies surveillance in the United States during 2020.” JAVMA 260(10). doi.org/10.2460/javma.22.03.0112.
- Moreira, I.L., de Sousa, D.E.R., Ferreira-Junior, J.A. et al. 2018. “Paralytic rabies in a goat.” BMC Vet Res 14: 338. doi.org/10.1186/s12917-018-1681-z.
- Oklahoma State University. 2021. “Veterinary Viewpoints: Rabies continues to be a threat to pets and livestock.” https://news.okstate.edu/articles/veterinary-medicine/2021/rabies_continues_to_be_a_threat_to_pet_and_livestock.html.
Cheryl K. Smith has raised miniature dairy goats in the Coast Range of Oregon since 1998. She is the managing editor of Midwifery Today magazine and the author of Goat Health Care, Raising Goats for Dummies, Goat Midwifery, and several e-books related to goats. She is currently working on a cozy mystery set on a dairy goat farm.
Originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.