Avoiding Diseases with a Biosecurity Plan

Episode 43
For the Love of Goats

boy petting a goat


There is an old veterinary saying that most animal diseases are bought and sold. It can be so tempting to buy every cute goat that you see, but there are some very good reasons to only buy your animals from reputable breeders who have herds that have tested negative for common diseases.

In this episode, I am talking to Patty Scharko, DVM, MPH, a Field/Extension Veterinarian at Clemson University in South Carolina about keeping your goats health with a good biosecurity plan. It all starts with buying healthy animals and then being careful to not bring home any germs that will cause diseases.

We talk about annual herd testing for the most common diseases, as well as how to keep your goats safe when people visit your farm or you go to goat shows.

To learn more about caprine arthritis encephalitis, check out the “Working to Eradicate CAE” podcast we did a few months ago.

If you’re interested to learn about the vaccines for goats, check out this podcast episode.

To learn more about biosecurity:

Dr. Julie Smith’s biosecurity grant funding provides:
Biosecurity Training (videos)
Youth, 4-H and FFA Biosecurity Learning Modules

Iowa State University Center for Food Security and Public Health:
Small Ruminant Diseases and Resources

For more information on infection control:
Disinfection (info about disinfectants, bacteria, and viruses)

Listen right here by clicking on the player above, or on your favorite platform:


Deborah Niemann 0:18
Hello, everyone, and welcome to another episode. I am really excited today to be joined by Dr. Patty Scharko, a field and extension veterinarian with Clemson University in South Carolina, and we are going to be talking about a topic that is really near and dear to my heart. And, in this case, it’s not because I made this mistake, because I’m… some people might say “paranoid” about biosecurity on my farm. But, there’s an old saying that I heard a long time ago that a lot of your livestock problems are “bought and sold,” and I didn’t want to have any personal examples to share with people other than one—I did knowingly buy a goat with mastitis once. Long time ago. Would not make that mistake again. So, welcome to the show today, Dr. Scharko.

Patty Scharko 1:07
Thank you, Deborah. It’s great to be here.

Deborah Niemann 1:10
So, I get emails, a lot of times from people who, you know, bought some goats at the sale barn or something. And they see something kind of funny, you know, like it has a sore on its lip; or it suddenly has, you know, really bad diarrhea, and it’s losing weight and deworming doesn’t help; or its knees are swollen or something, and they’re wondering what’s wrong. And I asked them if the goat’s been tested for a variety of diseases, and the answer is usually “no.” So that’s what we’re going to talk about today. And the one thing I always tell people is that nobody’s gonna sell a goat for $50 at the sale barn if they could sell it for $500. And there’s usually a very good reason. So, can you talk a little bit, from a biosecurity standpoint, for why people need to be careful about where they buy their goats?

Patty Scharko 2:00
So, what you were talking about is that some animals that could be diseased actually showing diseases once they get on a farm. So, buying from a livestock auction market is not the wisest thing to do. Our inspectors in South Carolina are checking for sore mouth, Orf lesions, for abscesses, or caseous lymphadenitis (CL), and then also ringworm. And those cases that are clinical go home. But some animals are about to break with it, or they’re harboring it, and we call it, like, a “Trojan horse,” where the disease is in them. I mean, just like this COVID, we don’t know who’s actively about to break with it. And so, yes, buying from a reputable producer is so important. And I tend to like to buy local, just because the animals in South Carolina are adapted to South Carolina weather. Illinois animals are adapted to Illinois weather, and if you bring them down, you might have more problems with some things. So, we’ve had a number of cases of outbreaks because people bought animals at auction markets, or from somebody that they really didn’t know much about, and diseases broke out. So, first buy from a reputable producer who’s probably testing on a regular basis. So I’ve talked to a lot of producers who are testing for CAE—caprine arthritis encephalitis—in goats, because that does cause the bad knees; it can cause, also, encephalitis in kids. Test for that; test for Johne’s—that’s a disease you don’t want to get on the farm, because that bacteria can persist for a long time. And that is like a Trojan horse in the animal, because they usually don’t show the symptoms until they’re further along as adults. And then, you know, certainly the sore mouth could vaccinate, but we only vaccinate if it’s a problem on a farm. So, better to keep it away. Having met several people who actually got the sore mouth on their hands—people’s hands—it’s a zoonotic disease. I have not had that; I’ve had ringworm, and ringworm was no fun, but I have not had the sore mouth. But it is extremely painful. So, all these diseases, we prefer to keep out of the farm.

Patty Scharko 4:16
And the next thing is, is just as a reminder, if you do get new animals, even if they’re from reputable producers, you really should have them isolated from your other animals—the farm animals—for at least two to four weeks. Minimum of two weeks. Most of us that do it right are four weeks, because that’s enough to have time for some diseases to come. But Johne’s won’t show up, sometimes caseous lymphadenitis—the abscesses—they don’t show up for several months. And so, you’ve got them in the farm, with the animals, and the big thing is to pull them. So those are the sort of major diseases that I worry about, and certainly foot rot is a bad thing that I, you know… All of these diseases are sort of on my top list of trying to keep off the farm, but especially foot rot. Having seen animals suffer when they get exposed to the foot rot bacteria, it’s sad. And right now we don’t have any vaccines available in the United States for it.

Deborah Niemann 5:15
Can you talk a little bit about testing for these diseases? So, if you got a herd of goats, and you want to make sure that they’re all healthy—and also for people who are buying goats, maybe for the first time—what do they want to look for, in terms of a history of testing, from potential herds that they want to purchase from?

Patty Scharko 5:40
So, CAE is my first and foremost one to see if the people that you’re buying from have tested their animals, because a negative usually is a negative, and a positive is usually a positive on there. And we usually can start testing at about 4 to 6 months of age as kids. So it’s pretty good. And, anytime you bring in new animals, you certainly want to test them on arrival, and then test them maybe a month later, just in case they were harboring the virus. So that’s the top one on my list, because it’s a fairly good test, and predictable on the results. Johne’s is a whole big discussion. That is so important, that the producer who you’re buying from has been testing for a period of time, because it’s a bacteria that hides; it’s a hard one to test for. We do blood-test for it. A positive animal may test negative… Well, not very often does a negative animal test positive, but we have false positives and false negatives, but we especially have false negatives with the test. And then we go to the fecal, and we do a PCR—a molecular—looking for the bacteria DNA. And, that’s a more expensive test. We go from a $5 to a $35 or $40 test. That’s a little bit better to show shedding, but once again, the animal is not shedding all the time. So, a negative doesn’t mean it’s negative.

Patty Scharko 7:06
So, those are the two I’d really, sort of, put up in the “consider testing,” then you get caseous lymphadenitis. Everybody wants to test for CL, and I just don’t recommend it, after talking and listening to many much more knowledgeable people who’ve done a lot more testing with the CL, and actually seen contradictions where a negative actually had an abscess internally in an animal on necropsy. So, people want to test, and I just say, “I just don’t put as much strength in that.” But, if someone’s been testing for a number of years, they haven’t seen any absences, they’re, to me, a top producer. And then we can’t test for foot rot. You have to pick up the feet and look, and like, uh… Anyway, I have a nice example about foot rot and looking at healthy feet that did have foot rot.

Deborah Niemann 8:01
Yeah, go ahead and tell us that story.

Patty Scharko 8:04
This was a farm day for goats. And it was a combination of meat and dairy goat producers coming in, and I was supposed to do fecal exams. This was several years ago. And, they were doing different demonstrations, and one was doing a foot trimming. And I didn’t get very many people wanting to learn how to do fecals, so I went over and watch the foot trimming. And the feet looked healthy. I saw them trimming at least one, if not two, goats. They were smart. These animals were brought from another farm, and they were actually trimmed on gravel outside of the barn. And that was that. And then, about six months later, I found out from the producer that several weeks after the event, her goats started really limping. And she picked the feet up, and looked at the bottom of the sole, and saw that they had foot rot. Not foot scald. Foot scald’s between the toes; foot rot is on the sole, and it sort of eats away. And it was nasty. There are different strains, and there are some that are pretty aggressive, and this one must have been very aggressive. So, what we decided is that the person who was trimming had foot rot in a nonclinical goat, and the foot trimmings were on, and then she walked over them to go to feed the animals and to go into the animals pen. So she tracked it. So, to me, feet can carry disease. I knew it. But this really emphasized. This was, sort of, outside of the barn, on gravel, in what apparently would look like normal feet. So, be careful. And anytime you have visitors that come to visit you, or you go visit other farms, your feet—you need to make sure you’re not wearing barn shoes. You need to be wearing sort of, almost, street shoes, and then put on plastic covers. And then, you just do not want to go from another farm to your farm. Even if that farm looks healthy and everything looks fine, be careful.

Deborah Niemann 10:01
Yeah, that is a really good point. Back on the CAE testing: I know when I got started in 2002, and for quite a few years after that, people used to send their CAE tests to Washington State, because back then they were the only one that did the ELISA test. Because, the AGID was done by quite a few more labs, but the AGID had a higher rate of false negatives. Does anybody do the AGID anymore? Does someone need to tell their vet, “I definitely want the ELISA,” or is that standard now?

Patty Scharko 10:38
There’s still some AGIDs out there. And Cornell, actually, will recommend it, like in suspect clinical cases. So, I think you still need to, usually, specific, but I think the default now is more often the ELISA than the agar gel immunodiffusion (AGID) test.

Deborah Niemann 10:58
Okay, that’s good to know. And then also, I talked to a pathologist about this once a long time ago, and he was saying that, for kids, it’s really not worth it to test them until they have been weaned for six months, because their mother’s antibody status can interfere with the test results. Is that still considered to be the benchmark?

Patty Scharko 11:23
We recommend for at least four months of age, and six months, if you can wait, is better. But yes, the four months is usually the time that the antibodies have decreased, so that they won’t get any potential false positive test. And the other thing is, is I was always trained to not test adult females that are about a month before kidding, and a month after, just because they’re putting the antibodies in the colostrum. And several people said, “No, that… You can test any time.” I still think it’s better to be testing an animal about a month or more before they kid. You have that information; you know whether you should tape up those teats to keep them from nursing. Because, if she’s positive with CAE, we do not want that goat kid to be nursing on her and pick it up. So, you need to get that answer before. But that’s the only thing is, is you’ll hear veterinarians have different reasons for testing.

Deborah Niemann 12:25
Okay. And we were talking a little bit about false negatives and false positives, and some people get super “negative” about that concept. They’re like, “Well, what’s the point of even testing then?” But, I just want to point out that we’re talking about—like, with the ELISA, it’s like 99.9-something percent accurate. So it’s not impossible to get incorrect test results, but it’s highly, highly unlikely.

Patty Scharko 12:51
That’s right, but if it’s 99%, that means 1 in 100, you know, 10 in 1000. So, it can happen. You just hope it doesn’t happen on your animals. But, if you’ve been testing all along, and you get a positive, don’t freak out. Just, you know, wait a couple of months, retest, because something in the environment triggered that immune response that was very similar to what we’re looking for, especially for CAE.

Deborah Niemann 13:16
So I know, like, a very long time ago, when I was building my herd, I was testing everybody regularly. And I had a doe that came back suspect positive. And she’d been here already for, like, two or three years; she had had multiple children—kids. She’d had multiple kids. And, I had also used her milk to bottle feed some other kids, and all of them were negative. So I had a feeling that that positive wasn’t really a real positive. And what someone suggested at that time was to do a PCR, which, as you mentioned, is much more expensive. And that’s why people don’t use that as a screening test. Because, the ELISA is, like, 5 or 10 bucks, and the PCR… I remember back then, I think, it was 25. And I sent it to Colorado State. And did that goat that had the suspect positive, as well as every kid who had ever consumed her milk, because I’m like, “I want to be extra extra sure.” And everybody came back negative on the PCR. Is that still considered a good strategy if you have a goat that tests positive?

Patty Scharko 14:25
You can. I’m not used to using the PCR test for CAE as much as just coming back a couple of months later and testing again with the ELISA on there, just because it is somewhere between $5 and $10, and oftentimes it comes back negative the second time. But yes, certainly PCR is looking for the DNA—RNA, whatever you’re looking for—for that particular disease instead of looking for the antibodies.

Deborah Niemann 14:54
Right, yeah, so that’s basically the difference: The ELISA is just looking for the antibody, and the PCR is actually looking for the disease. So…

Patty Scharko 15:03
Yeah, people have learned a lot more about these things because of COVID and testing.

Deborah Niemann 15:10
Yeah, exactly. I know, it’s funny, when I hear a lot of stuff that they say about COVID, I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I understand that.” And, you know, when people talk about quarantine, I’m like, “I understand that.” In fact, let’s talk about quarantine a little bit more. To make sure that you’re keeping your whole herd safe, Step #1 is to buy from herds that have tested negative; they’ve had whole herd negative tests, hopefully for two or three years, if not longer if it’s a more established herd. And so, then some people might think, “Okay, I’m good. I can bring these goats home, and I don’t have to do anything else.” But really, it’s a good idea to test them once you get them home, right?

Patty Scharko 15:48
It’s not a bad idea to test them. I mean, once again, it just depends on the producer that you’re purchasing from, and what you have, you know, belief in there. But it is always good to bring them in, isolate them from the rest of the herd, and do your quarantine isolation for two to four weeks. And then you could test them for CAE at that time, because they’ve had enough time if they got exposed the last day going on the previous farm, they would have started to get some antibodies on there.

Patty Scharko 16:18
And can I just mention about with quarantining animals on a farm—it’s the most natural and easiest and happens all the time, is you use your barn that you use all the time for everything for those isolations. And it allows you to look at these new animals, keep them penned up, so they can’t get into any trouble, and keep an eye on them. But, I have another case of someone who bought some animals from livestock auction, and they were cute, and she bought them, and put them in a pen. And then, all of a sudden, her does—it was time for them to kid. And it had been three to four weeks. So she took those out of the barn and the pens, cleaned it up, disinfected it with Clorox, and then brought the pregnant to kid. And, within a few days or a week of that, they started showing signs—the kids started having sore mouth, or Orf, on their mouth. And she’d never seen that. And then the does got it on their teats and the udder, because these does had never been exposed to the virus. And that is… Both are painful. But especially for the doe, she doesn’t want that kid to nurse, and so they’re more at risk of getting mastitis. And, yeah. It’s not a good thing to go. So, where do you put them? That’s a good question. You want to put them somewhere that’s out in the sun, you know, not under the roof, because sun is one of our best friends—as we’ve learned with COVID. But at the same time, you want them close by. So, I don’t know. Maybe, Deborah, you have some solutions for that, but… Isolation quarantine is very important, but remember where you put them, and even disinfecting… Some of these viruses are tough to kill.

Deborah Niemann 18:02
Yeah. My answer is: I have not bought a doe since 2005. So, and I think—

Patty Scharko 18:09
So you’re our closed herd example. And, we really do say be careful, as a closed herd, who comes to visit your farm, you know, where their feet have been… And that’s highly desirable, especially with the female side, is just keep them closed, and then bring in a male from a farm and genetics that you know about, and let that be your only “coming in” source. And you quarantine him. And it’s a little bit easier to quarantine him sort of away from the barn.

Deborah Niemann 18:38
Yeah. It’s funny, I’m actually looking at this now. Because, it’s about every 5 to 7 years I bring in a buck, and then I also have enough genetics in my herd that I can do a lot of mixing, and matching, and then keeping a buck out of one line to use, and so… I have some very distant line breedings sometimes, where somebody is, like—you’ll see somebody twice in a pedigree, but they’re, like, way out there. And I feel like that’s a really good answer for people in terms of just keeping your herd safe, because you know your goats on your farm—like, unless somebody brings something in—they’re gonna be pretty safe.

Deborah Niemann 19:20
So, what does somebody do if they are showing? Because, they are taking their goats out there. And I’ll start, too, by saying that my daughters, when they were home—the goats were the girls’ project. So it was me and my daughters, and they wanted to show, and I kind of felt like, “Well, they do everything, so I should be a good mom and take them to shows.” And so we did. We showed a lot when they were home, even though I was worried all the time about the biosecurity issues. Because, I would hear stories, you know, like somebody said, “Oh, last year everybody went home from this show and had foot rot.” And I was just like, “Oh my gosh!” Or, you know, “Everybody had ringworm.” And then one day, my oldest daughter was over sixteen, she had her driver’s license, and so the two of them went to a show on their own. And when they came home, they said, “Just letting you know, Mom, I think we might have pinkeye.” And I was like, “AHHH!”

Patty Scharko 20:21
Oh, no.

Deborah Niemann 20:22
Because, it was, like, the most popular show in Illinois—like, it sells out. So all of the pens, they are stacked like sardines in there. And my girls said, like, there were just a gazillion flies, and they were getting into the goats’ eyes. It… Poop is not supposed to be in a goat’s eye, you know? And a fly… That’s what the flies are doing. They’re, like, eating poop, and then getting into a goat’s eyes. That was the end of our show career. Like, that’s it!

Patty Scharko 20:53
Did they end up getting pink eye?

Deborah Niemann 20:55
They did. Most of my goats wound up with it. And the most heartbreaking thing of all: Our first homegrown champion got it so bad she went completely blind, and was just standing in the corner of the barn getting skinnier every day. And that just.. I felt like, “Okay, this is it. This was our warning. This is the end.” So, obviously, something like pinkeye, there’s nothing you can do about it, because it’s spread by flies. But some of the other things. So, like, what should somebody do, then, to make sure—or do their best. I don’t think you can ever be sure if you’re showing, but what’s the best you can do if you’re showing and taking your goats out into public to make sure that you can stay safe?

Patty Scharko 21:41
Well, Deborah, I’m sure you know, you know, when you’re showing, you do not share. Someone loses a halter and says, “Can I borrow your halter?” No. I don’t need you to use it on your goats, and then turn around and have ringworm on it, or sore mouth, or something. So, we don’t share. And this communal water bucket that might be out there right near the show ring… I don’t see it as much. Like, I see it for cattle, and with cattle we know mycoplasma is in some of their saliva, and it gets in the water, and that bacteria can be consumed by the next animal. So, we don’t share water or feed buckets—anything mouth can go. Pinkeye is a hard one. Fly control is very, very important. You know, with The Scrapie Flock Certification Program, people that were showing, they’re supposed to not really have nose-to-nose contact with other nonparticipants. And so, they would put up cardboard or something between them, or try to put a pen between their group. So, when you’ve got them stacked on top of each other, like you describe in Illinois, that’s just not a good situation to have. So really, don’t share, you know, no communal, and then definitely treat them like they’re new animals coming back, and they need to be isolated for 2 to 4 weeks, because you certainly don’t want that pinkeye to easily transfer to others and then to possibly lose their sight.

Deborah Niemann 23:09
Is there anything else that you can think of that people need to know to make sure that they keep their goats safe?

Patty Scharko 23:15
So, we talked about feet, okay, and in the importance of feet-tracking diseases, like, with the foot rot, which is a bacteria. So they can carry bacteria and viruses to farms. Just remember: hat. You know, in Illinois, you have to wear gloves and coats and things like that. Realize people could be wearing it on their farm coming onto your farm. So, Dr. Paula Menzies at the University of Guelph says they’ve not had sore mouth in their sheep flock for many years, and she says the reason is: They have to put on our coveralls. They have to take off their coats, mittens, hats, jackets, and leave them in the locker room, and come in, and we put plastic boots on our boots. And so, everything does not come on to their farm. So that’s something to think about. When you have… When you’re a good farm, you want people to come see them, you know? You like visitors. But we just have to realize that visitors may be bringing diseases onto the farm. So we just really have to be cautious that they could have easily worn that jacket or hat to a livestock auction market or on their farm.

Deborah Niemann 24:24
I’ve been to a couple of farms where people have a foot bath, you know, as you’re walking into their livestock area, or walking into their barn, or something. And, I always ask them what it is, and they always just say it’s bleach in water. But then I’ve heard other people say that once you get some dirt in there, it’s really not effective. Is that true?

Patty Scharko 24:47
That’s true. Yeah. Bleach is quickly inactivated by organic material, so dirt, manure. As soon as it gets dirty… I had a colleague many years ago for swine farms that was using another disinfectant—I believe it was chlorhexidine—but they cultured it after several people had gone through it, and they could culture. The disinfectant was no longer effective. And so what it’s doing is, actually, it’s applying the bacteria or the virus onto your feet, and now you’re carrying it in, you know, or carrying it back to your farm. So foot baths, we used to really like, if they were fresh, but… I’ve had some people make me lift up my feet like a horse, and they spray my feet, you know, with a disinfectant. And usually, it’ll be something like chlorhexidine, which is not as caustic. Like, when we go on to farms, we’re using one stroke, and when you handle it, you want to wear gloves. So it’s a very strong phenolic disinfectant. So bleach, everybody’s got it, but as soon as it gets dirty it’s been inactivated.

Deborah Niemann 25:56
So if… Because we used to have a swimming pool. And I know I was super surprised when we got the swimming pool that bleach—chlorine—actually goes away really fast. So, like, you have to have a constant injection of it in your swimming pool. And so that was the other thing I was thinking about these chlorine foot dips, is that the chlorine is probably actually not even going to be there after, what, a couple hours?

Patty Scharko 26:22
That I don’t know. I’m not sure how long it lasts. But that does remind me of another point, is that usually, foot baths, we’re doing a: step, step, out, out. Okay? Really, to be effective, we need contact. And we probably need a minute contact. And most of us are there for, what, five seconds or less on there?

Deborah Niemann 26:43
Oh, wow.

Patty Scharko 26:44
So, you’re questioning whether it’s dissipated, and my question is, “Did they truly make, like, a 10%? bleach? Or did they just do a glug into the bucket of water?” And then the other thing is contact time. So really, foot baths are a wonderful idea, but—

Deborah Niemann 27:04

Patty Scharko 27:05
—not as good as they sound anymore. So, oftentimes, we’ll put on plastic boots, but if you do plastic boots on gravel, it breaks down, and now you’re having contact. So it doesn’t work. So having, you know, real boots is ideal, but most people don’t have that. Best thing to do is don’t let the people walk into where the animals are; keep them in alleyway, keep them, you know, on the fence and looking in, and keeping the feet away from there. Still having them guarded is good, but really not going into where the animals are feeding and eating.

Deborah Niemann 27:40
So, I know Johne’s can survive on pasture for years. And that’s our worst case scenario. But what about some of these other things, like foot rot and stuff like that? How long does that remain viable on pasture or in the aisle of your barn?

Patty Scharko 28:01
Well, Deborah, I’d have to go back to my notes for foot rot. It all depends on conditions, and especially when it’s cloudy, undercover, it lasts a lot longer. In sun and drying, it dissipates on there. It’s certainly not as long as the Johne’s—the Mycobacterium paratuberculosis. That bacteria doesn’t multiply, but it can exist in a pond for over a year. So we really don’t like animals drinking out of ponds. Fresh water is the best way to go. Pond water could have Salmonella, the Johne’s if other animals that were positive defecated in the pond, or the runoff went into the pond.

Deborah Niemann 28:44
Oh, that’s a really good point. I’ve never thought of that. I haven’t heard anybody’s even mentioned that as a possibility.

Patty Scharko 28:52
Well, and we’re very sensitive with backyard birds. Oftentimes they’re on ponds. And with “high path” Avian influenza right now in Europe is they should not be near open water and be fed off of that fresh water. You know, they should have well water or city water, and not from the pond, just because the virus can easily come through there. So it just… High alert.

Deborah Niemann 29:21
Okay, that is a really good point. You’ve had so much great information here already for everybody, and I think you’ve answered all of my questions. So, do you have anything else that you feel that people should know?

Patty Scharko 29:33
I think biosecurity, we’ve learned a lot about it. With people even more so. So, we just need to apply what you’ve learned for people back to your animals.

Deborah Niemann 29:45
All right, great. Well, thank you so much! It has been a pleasure having you here today. And I hope that lots of people take what you said to heart and are more careful when they’re bringing in new goats on their farm. Thanks!

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