Goat breeders usually use “goat polio” and “thiamine deficiency” interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. For years, the two terms were used interchangeably because goats with symptoms of polio responded to treatment with thiamine, leading people to believe thiamine deficiency was the cause of the symptoms.
There are a number of causes for goat polio, however, such as lead poisoning, sulfur poisoning, salt poisoning, moldy hay, too much grain, and not enough water.
Thiamine deficiency in goats
Thiamine (vitamin B1) is produced in a healthy rumen, so it is not a vitamin that goats need to consume. Thiamine deficiency can happen whenever the rumen is upset by any number of things, including ingesting excessive grain, which is why it is most often seen in feedlot cattle and sheep.
It can happen on the homestead, however, when a goat gets into the chicken grain one time too many. Administration of white dewormers, levamisole, or amprolium can also upset the rumen and cause a thiamine deficiency, especially when used long term.
“Stargazing” is the most often cited symptom of thiamine deficiency, and I’ve seen more than a few new goat breeders start giving their goat vitamin B injections for days or even weeks simply because a goat was tipping its head back and moving it from side to side as if it was looking at the sky.
If the goat is otherwise healthy, the stargazing could just be a habit of the goat. Also, some goats with horns will appear to be stargazing when they scratch their back with their horns.
Polio is a disease of the brain, so there will be multiple symptoms, and the goat will be very sick. It will be depressed, off feed, and often have diarrhea. Unfortunately, these symptoms are very similar to enterotoxemia and listeriosis. And as the list of possible symptoms gets longer, it just gets more confusing. A goat with polio may also be blind or start circling, which are also symptoms of other diseases. As you have probably realized, a quick trip to the vet is your best bet.
A goat with polio can die within a day or two if left untreated. Because diagnosis is so challenging and treatment for polio is most likely to be effective if started early, the vet usually gives an injection of thiamine, which is by prescription, if polio is suspected.
Over-the-counter injectable B vitamins do not contain enough thiamine to treat polio. If treatment is going to be effective, it will work within a day or two. In the worst cases of polio, treatment may save the goat’s life, but it will never completely recover and will be partially blind or mentally impaired forever.
So, why is a goat with polio treated with thiamine if polio isn’t the same thing as thiamine deficiency? Thiamine often works to reverse symptoms, although no one knows exactly why.
Studies have shown that a goat suffering from lead poisoning or sulfur toxicity will also respond positively to treatment with thiamine, even though it is not thiamine deficient. This is important to know because the treatment of a goat with thiamine injections is not supposed to be long term. If the goat continues to relapse or if other goats are having the same symptoms, there is something in the diet or the environment that is causing the problem, such as a diet with too much grain, which upsets the rumen balance. You may also want to test your water for the presence of lead.
This is an excerpt from Raising Goats Naturally: A Complete Guide to Milk, Meat, and More by Deborah Niemann.