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What do you do when your goat has diarrhea, which is often called scours in livestock? Unfortunately, that’s not an easy question to answer because there are a couple dozen possible causes. In the fourth edition of Diseases of the Goat, author John Matthews has a 28-page chapter entitled “Diarrhea,” which should give you an idea that this is not exactly a simple problem.
Broadly speaking, scours or diarrhea can be caused by viruses, bacteria, protozoa, worms, stress, toxic substances, and diet. The following list is nowhere close to being complete, but it includes the most common causes of diarrhea.
Table of Contents
Sudden change of diet
When goats suddenly get a lot more grain, milk, or grass than they have been consuming, it can lead to diarrhea.
Grain (goat feed)
Many people refer to grain as “goat crack,” meaning that it is so addictive goats will eat it until they kill themselves. Note that grain is the main ingredient in goat feed, and the two terms are often used interchangeably.
In our early years of goat ownership, our goats busted into the chicken feed, which is mostly grain, more times than I can remember. Luckily the worst thing that ever happened to any of them was diarrhea for about twelve hours, which cleared up on its own.
Then there was the time that we had a LaMancha that produced so much milk, I couldn’t get her milked out fast enough, and she wound up consuming so much goat feed that she got diarrhea. (That’s when I started mixing in alfalfa pellets!)
Too much milk
I’ll never forget the time that we were at a goat show and decided to let our bottle kids have as much milk as they wanted. That’s a super embarrassing way to discover that too much milk causes goat diarrhea. (We had no way to keep the milk cold, so we were going to have to dump whatever we didn’t use, so it seemed a better idea to just let the kids have it. Right? Wrong!) Here is more information on bottle-feeding baby goats.
It is pretty rare, but once in a blue moon, you will have a dam-raised kid wind up with diarrhea in the first day of life. It looks like someone squirted mustard all over its back end! This can happen when you have a single kid or a doe simply has a massive amount of colostrum. If you simply milk out the doe, that generally takes care of it, and the kids will go back to pooping scrambled eggs.
Too much grass
The only time this usually happens is early spring when your goats have been accustomed to eating dry hay all winter, and you let them out onto a lush spring pasture one day. So if your goats have been spending the winter on a dry lot eating nothing but hay, it’s a good idea to introduce them to grass gradually.
You can give them their usual allotment of morning hay so that they fill themselves up with what they accustomed to, then let them out on pasture for a few hours, and bring them back into the dry lot. Continue giving them hay first thing in the morning and increase their time on pasture by a a couple of hours each day.
Although I have heard a few people say their goats have trouble with spring grass, mine never have, perhaps because they are always on pasture and are gradually eating more grass as it starts growing. However, our sheep all have terrible diarrhea for a week or two in the spring, even though they have been on pasture forever, so different small ruminants may simply react differently to spring grass.
Diarrhea can be disgusting, but in the case of spring grass, it doesn’t actually make otherwise healthy sheep or goats sick. I have never treated anyone for diarrhea in these situations, and they’ve all been fine.
The only time I ever had a goat get diarrhea from stress was when we picked up three kids in Massachusetts and were about half an hour into our drive home to Illinois. Did I mention that the kids were in dog crates in the car? Yeah, that was stinky.
It’s usually pretty obvious what’s happening if a goat is stressed out. Most do not suffer quietly when stressed, so you’ll have a good idea that the goat’s diarrhea is caused by stress.
The most common cause of diarrhea in baby goats more than 3 weeks old is coccidiosis. It is treated with oral meds. Amprolium (Corid) is the only over-the-counter drug available, and it is used once a day for five days.
Sulfa drugs, such as sulfamethazine and sulfadimethoxine (Albon) used to be over the counter, but in 2015, they became available by prescription only. It is also used once a day for five days. One reason I always like the sulfa drugs for treating diarrhea is because it kills coccidia and is also an antimicrobial, so can treat some infectious causes of diarrhea also.
Toltrazuril (Baycox) is another coccidiosis drug available from your veterinarian, and it preferred by many people because it is a one-time treatment.
If you start treatment for coccidiosis, and you don’t see any improvement within a couple of days, you need to get a fecal culture to get a definitive diagnosis. A fecal flotation looks for parasites whereas a fecal culture looks for an infectious cause for the diarrhea.
Other possibilities are giardia, clostridum, salmonella, and yersinia, and you can’t tell by looking at the poop with the naked eye.
Although many people think coccidiosis is unavoidable, it can usually be prevented with good management. Many years ago, we were one of those farms where an outbreak seemed inevitable every spring, but by improving our management (especially making sure kids get enough milk), we have had only two cases in about a decade.
If a kid gets diarrhea at less than three weeks, then it’s probably caused by either too much milk or an infection. I never say never, but it’s highly unusual for a kid to get too much milk when dam raised. It’s only happened here twice in 750 kids.
Most adults have coccidia in their digestive system and don’t have a problem with it, so diarrhea in adults is rarely caused by coccidiosis. You don’t usually see a problem with coccidiosis in adults unless the goat is already sick with something else and the stress of that illness has lowered their immune system.
The only adult goat here that has been treated for coccidiosis in more than a decade was one that almost bled to death after kidding and spent a week at the vet hospital, so her immune system was obviously under a lot of stress.
Diarrhea in adult goats is really unusual, but one of the more common causes is worms, which can also cause diarrhea in kids. Barber pole, which causes anemia in goats, does not usually cause diarrhea. However, a goat may have more than one type of worm at a time.
Basically, a skinny goat with diarrhea or anemia or both may have worms. Swelling under the jaw (bottle jaw) may also be a symptom of worms.
There are several over-the-counter oral drugs available to treat worms, but like antibiotics, you should only use them when absolutely necessary in order to avoid dewormer resistance.
I’ve heard far too many people assume their goat can’t have worms because they recently treated with a dewormer. However, if they use a dewormer frequently, the worms could be resistant to the dewormer. This topic is definitely opening up a proverbial can of worms because I’ve written several blog posts about worms, including this one about preventing parasites.
What about bloody diarrhea in goats?
Among other things, bloody diarrhea can be caused by enterotoxemia, especially if it looks like more blood than poop. You should contact your vet immediately because the survival rate for enterotoxemia is quite low, so treatment needs to be started immediately. The CDT vaccine is supposed to prevent enterotoxemia, but it’s not a guarantee, so don’t assume your goat can’t have it simply because it’s vaccinated.
Other causes of diarrhea in goats
At the ADGA conference in 2017, I picked up a couple of interesting tidbits, such as heating colostrum above 135 degrees will cause diarrhea in baby goats, and some drugs can cause goat diarrhea. In addition to that, there are 28 pages of diarrhea information in the book I mentioned earlier.
Because diarrhea can kill goats, especially kids, by dehydrating them, it’s important to figure out what is causing the goat’s diarrhea and begin treatment as soon as possible to treat the actual cause — not just the symptom.
Treating diarrhea in goats
I have never given my goats any type of anti-diarrhea medication because they don’t do anything to address the cause of the diarrhea. Just because the diarrhea stops does not mean that you’ve cured the goat. If a goat ate something that disagreed with it, the diarrhea will stop even if you do nothing.
When a goat has some type of infection or medical condition that needs to be treated, then the goat needs to be treated for that problem.
If a goat has no other symptoms, seems otherwise healthy and happy and is in great body condition, I will usually wait to see if the diarrhea has stopped by the next morning. If not, I look at other symptoms and treat for coccidiosis or worms, based upon which is more likely in a goat of that age. In my herd, that has always done the trick within a day or two.
However, if I had a goat that did not improve with treatment within two days, I would take a fecal sample to the vet to get a definitive diagnosis so the goat could be properly treated.
More on Parasites, Worms, and Dewormers
- Goat Worms: A Complete Guide to Winning the War in Your Pasture
- Common But Unimportant Worms in Goats
- Using Dewormers Correctly
- Deworming Goats
- Preventing Coccidiosis
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This post was originally published April 5, 2018 and was updated in 2023.