For the Love of Goats
Whenever a doe’s udder has a different texture or temperature than normal, mastitis is the first thing that we all worry about. Today’s topic has been one of the most requested from my listeners, so I know it’s something we all worry about from time to time.
Dr. George McCommon, professor of veterinary science and public health at Fort Valley State University, joins us today to talk about the basics of mastitis, as well as his current research project.
We start with mastitis symptoms and how a hot, hard udder is not always present when a doe has mastitis. In fact, when a doe has gangrenous mastitis, her udder may actually be cold. We discuss the California Mastitis Test, better known as the CMT, and I got my question answered about when the reagent expires!
We discuss conventional antibiotic treatments, and we also talk about how probiotics might play a role in treating mastitis. That’s the subject of Dr. McCommon’s research right now, and they are still working on figuring out which probiotic strains work best.
In this episode, we also talk about one of my biggest mistakes as a goat owner. Years ago I thought a doe had hypocalcemia when in fact, she had gangrenous mastitis. To learn more about how those two things could get confused, check out our episode on hypocalcemia in goats.
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For the love of goats! We are talking about everything goat. Whether you’re a goat owner, a breeder, or just a fan of these wonderful creatures, we’ve got you covered. And now, here is Deborah Niemann.
Deborah Niemann 0:16
Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode. As many of you are moving into milking season after your goats all kidded this spring, I know one of the most common questions I’m going to be getting in the next few months has to do with mastitis. So, I’m really excited today to be joined by Dr. George McCommon, professor of veterinary science and public health from Fort Valley State University, to talk about not only the basics of mastitis and what everyone should know, but also about some research that he’s doing on naturally treating mastitis. So, welcome to the show today. Dr. McCommon.
George McCommon 0:54
Thank you so much for having me. This is lovely.
Deborah Niemann 0:57
So first of all, let’s just basically talk about the basics of mastitis. Like, what exactly is mastitis? What are the symptoms of mastitis? And, you know, when should we be concerned?
George McCommon 1:09
Well, mastitis, of course, is just inflammation of the mammary tissue. And it can be noninfectious, or it can be infectious. You know, if a goat were to be kicked or received trauma to the udder, that could cause mastitis. But then, I think what we mostly, you know, think about is when we have a bacterial infection, and those range from anaerobic to aerobic. They can be septic. We can end up with gangrene. Which, we don’t really see gangrene that much in goats. But that is an issue with cattle. And goats are actually… They’re not as bad as cattle. Cattle are really bad, because if you think about dairy cattle, I mean, most of the time it’s swampy, it’s a lot of muck and manure, and the teat sphincters get dilated, and next thing you know, you’ve got an infection. Whereas goats tend to be pretty healthy with things like this.
George McCommon 2:05
The symptoms, in general: The udder is going to swell, be hot. There is a California Mastitis Test, where you basically have a plate, and you can squirt the milk onto the plate, and you can see if you have flakes in it. Sometimes it’ll even have blood in it. It depends on the severity of the condition, as to how it’s gonna present. There are conditions where they do become septic or gangrenous, and in which case, the udder will actually be cool. So. But generally, the average goat with mastitis is going to have a large, swollen udder. And it can be both halves, or it could be just one single half.
Deborah Niemann 2:46
That’s so interesting that you mentioned—because everybody always thinks like, “Oh, if they have mastitis, their udder is going to be hot.” And I talked about my experience with a cold, floppy udder in our session that we did on hypocalcemia. Because I mistakenly assumed that the goat had hypocalcemia, because she was laying in the corner, and her kids were jumping all over her, and when I felt her udder, it was cold and floppy. Like she, like, was not producing. And I checked her temperature, and it was low. And so, I mistakenly thought it was hypocalcemia. And at that time, I didn’t know like, “Oh, if you give them calcium, they should respond really quickly.” And unfortunately, then she died, like, about six or eight hours later. And I was just so confused. Like, I’m like, “I did what I was supposed to do.” And so I had a necropsy done, and they said “Mastitis,” and I was like, “What?” So in that situation, if you treat for hypocalcemia and they do not respond, then that’s not it. You need to get to a vet and find out what it is.
Deborah Niemann 3:50
So, other than that, like, if your goat has a cold udder, how would you know it’s mastitis?
George McCommon 3:57
Well, a couple of ways. Probably the most common is the California Mastitis Test, or just simply squirting the milk, preferably onto a black plastic plate—normally they’re plastic—and seeing if you have flakes, seeing what’s in it. Sometimes, that can be a little bit tricky. Sometimes it can be hard. And bloodwork generally doesn’t help you. Generally, the CBC is probably going to be normal no matter what, unless it’s a really bad problem, in which case things may not work out well.
George McCommon 4:28
But you’re correct. And you do have to be careful—particularly if you’re using IV calcium—that we don’t give it too fast. That you can actually stop the heart if you give it too fast or too much. So. But, if you’re doing oral calcium, you should not have that problem.
Deborah Niemann 4:43
Right. So, if you use the CMT, and you find that your goat does test positive for mastitis, then what should your next step be?
George McCommon 4:52
This is where, traditionally, there’ll be intramammary, where you actually go into the teat canal and actually place the antibiotic inside the goat. You can also milk the goat fairly frequently, if you just keep milking the milk out, and… And always, if you are in some sort of operation where you are using milking machines, and you’re not just raising goats, but you want to make sure that goat’s milk lasts, you want to make sure that everything’s kept clean, do not feed that milk to… You know, some people say, “Oh, well, we’ll just feed it to the other kids, and we’ll all be fine.” But you don’t want to feed the contaminated milk to the other kids. And then, there’s always antibiotics. I mean, you can go right with antibiotics.
George McCommon 5:37
Those are the traditional methods: keeping it milked out. You might want to give some oxytocin, you know, to make the milk come on out. And then, whether you put an intramammary, you know, process—which, they do make commercial products—or use antibiotics. I mean, and I think it’s something like oxytetracycline IM is always an option. And what we’re looking at is using probiotics, both orally and potentially intramammary, to avoid the antibiotics. We don’t have antibiotic residuals in the milk. Should be less expensive. And it’s just gonna be all around healthier and more organic.
Deborah Niemann 6:22
Okay. So, quick question about the symptoms, because I just thought of something. I used to see a lot of people say, “Oh, if they have mastitis, their milk will be salty.” Of course, that means you have to taste it to know if it’s salty. And I, like… I don’t know. That just doesn’t really sound like that would be, like, a recommended method of diagnosis.
George McCommon 6:43
I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t… I think there are probably other ways. I agree with you. I just don’t see that that’s really… I mean, it may be perfectly true. I mean, I’m… To be quite honest, you know, we were laughing about things that you never really thought about, but I have heard that too. But at the same time, I really don’t know if that’s true or not true. You know, I honestly have to kind of defer to you on that one.
Deborah Niemann 7:05
Actually, I do know it’s true, because I accidentally consumed mastitis milk one time.
George McCommon 7:09
Okay. Well, then. I learned something.
Deborah Niemann 7:12
We’ve only had three goats in 20 years ever have it. And this was back when my teenage daughter was here. And I got up one morning, and I went downstairs, and I fixed myself a bowl of cereal. And I had opened a brand-new box of cereal, and I was like, “This is awful. They spilled the salt in this cereal.” And then, like, half an hour later, my daughter comes in and goes, “Oh, by the way, I think Viola might have mastitis, because her udder feels really hot and hard.” And I was like, “Uh, was that her milk in the refrigerator?” So, I tell people, when they ask me, I’m like, “Okay, I’ve drank it, and I lived to tell the tale. But, I really don’t think it’s recommended that you actually drink it.”
Deborah Niemann 7:57
And I like what you just suggested, about checking to see if there’s any flakes or chunks in the milk. Even if the udder is not hot and hard, you should still see those chunks. And, we used to have a strip cup that had a screen on it, which was wonderful. We used that for years until the screen just completely rusted and fell out. And then I never replaced it. But it’s one of those things. It’s kind of on the to-do list, like, “Oh, yeah. I should get a new one of those.”
George McCommon 8:22
Those are nice when they have a little screen in them. And, you know, the paddle doesn’t… I don’t even know what a paddle costs. I mean, it’s a couple of dollars. I mean, it’s not expensive.
Deborah Niemann 8:33
Yeah. So, let’s talk about your research now. Tell us a little bit about your study, when you started, and what exactly you’re doing?
George McCommon 8:42
Well, when we first started, it was 2016. And we went through a cycle of 2016 to 2021. And then we started again on the next cycle in 2021. And what… Well, at first we actually went and identified the various bacteria. First, we did it where we did the “which antibiotics were working and which ones weren’t.” We were doing this in a plate, and we were just using, you know, there’s a dairy goat facility here. Then, we looked at probiotics, actually, in the auger, and saw what was working there, and we came up with several—which we’re still kind of in the process. That’s where we are now, is trying to find out which probiotics work the best and how best to use them. That’s what we’re looking at right now.
Deborah Niemann 9:31
What are the different ways that you’ve tried using them?
George McCommon 9:34
Orally and intramammary.
Deborah Niemann 9:37
So, what kind of probiotics are these? It’s probably not something you can just pick up at the farm store.
George McCommon 9:43
Actually, some of them you probably could.
Deborah Niemann 9:48
Probably the oral ones, right?
George McCommon 9:49
Yes, ma’am. Yes ma’am. And you can get those. And we’re trying to really find out which ones work, and, you know, it’s like anything else. We’re trying to find out what actually works, and we don’t want people spending money on things that don’t work. I always use the example of: You look in a feed catalog, and there’ll be an entire page of vitamin C for horses. Well, horses produce their own vitamin C, so you really don’t need that. That’s not really helpful. But that’s what we’re trying to do, is find out what works and what is most economical and efficient way of getting it into the body.
Deborah Niemann 10:26
Okay, so what have you found so far? What are the results you’ve had so far with that?
George McCommon 10:30
We’ve narrowed it down to about three different ones. And right now, I’m not real comfortable saying which three. You know, we’re hoping to get it down to where we know one, and that we can actually, you know, we’d be back in touch. We’d love to get back in touch when we had some real concrete information.
George McCommon 10:48
Just as you said, we’re starting the milking season. So this past winter, we really were kind of… We weren’t producing. Like, you know, so we didn’t have our product to really go with. So we’re starting back. Really, basically, probably first of June, we’re going to start really getting some things going with the lab.
Deborah Niemann 11:11
Right. So, is this the kind of thing… Is it something that people should try yet, or wait to see a little more on how it goes with your research?
George McCommon 11:22
I would think that if you had a goat—and as you said, you know, goats are not particularly susceptible to mastitis terribly. I mean, just as you said, in 20 years, you’ve had three cases. I mean. But, you will not go wrong with any of the oral probiotics that you see at the feed store. Certainly won’t hurt anything. Let’s put it that way.
Deborah Niemann 11:42
Right. Yeah, that’s good to know. I know, we recently had a doe that… We weigh all the kids daily for the first couple of weeks, and we had a doe whose kids—we expect them to gain 4 ounces a day. And her kids only gained an ounce or two. And when my husband told me that, my first thing was, “Oh my gosh, check her udder.” And he said one side of her udder was very hard. And he said, “It’s not hot, but it’s very hard.” He goes, “And I can’t get milk to come out of it.” So it was Easter Sunday—
George McCommon 11:42
Deborah Niemann 11:49
—like, everything was closed. And I’m like, I don’t have anything here, you know. And so I said, “Okay, well, let’s try some peppermint essential oil and some olive oil. Rub it on her udder, leave it for about 30 minutes, go back with a hot washcloth.”
George McCommon 12:29
Deborah Niemann 12:29
“Put that on there. See if you can get the milk flowing again.” And he did, and so it’s like, “Phew. Okay, we’re good.”
Deborah Niemann 12:37
But that also brought up another question. And that is because I found my CMT stuff. And there is no expiration date on it. I did a lot of Googling, trying to find a reliable source. My thought was: If there’s no expiration date on it, it’s not going to expire. Is that true?
George McCommon 12:56
The bromocresol purple is… I don’t think it really goes bad. I mean, it’s one of those things that, you know, ours all had “NED”—no expiration date—written on them. So, I think as long as you store it in some sort of reasonable manner, I think it’s pretty much good for years.
Deborah Niemann 13:17
Okay, that’s great to know. So, I can keep using it with confidence and not thinking it’s gonna give me a false negative.
George McCommon 13:24
Deborah Niemann 13:26
All right. So, are you expecting then, like, within another year or so, to have more results from your research?
George McCommon 13:33
We hope to have a lot more, really. We hope to have more, certainly within the year. Certainly within the year, we hope to have some more concrete results that we can pass on and really get out there. We really want get—and that’s why I’m so thankful for your show and your podcast. Because, you know, we want to get the information out there, and we want to get it to, you know, the people that are actually going to use it and need it. So, you know, I think shows like this are super important, because you really do spread a lot of information, and it gets it out to people that want to hear it.
Deborah Niemann 14:07
Yeah. Thank you so much! I know I love our listeners, and they’re always sending me suggestions, which is great. And like I told you, I think, before we started, that mastitis is, like, one of the most requested topics that I’ve had. So, I’m super happy that you were able to join us and talk about this, because I know it’s something, even if people don’t have it, they worry about it every time something feels a little off with a goat’s udder
George McCommon 14:31
Well, and you’re exactly right. And, you know, with mastitis, subacute mastitis seems to be—to me—is almost worse, because you’re not really having the symptoms. You don’t realize… You just realize that maybe everybody’s just got a little bit of mastitis. And then, depending on what kind of operation you’re running, you may be just infecting everybody, and it’s just everybody’s just got a low level, and everybody’s at subpar performance. Just as you were describing the kid that was only gaining an ounce a day—there’s subpar performance. And then it can be really measurable, that if you have a really big milking operation, that little bit ofdifference can be the difference between making money and not making money.
Deborah Niemann 15:18
Yeah. And I know we were on milk test for eight years. And then, after our children grew up and left, it just got to be way too much for my husband and I to try and handle doing that every month. But, like, I still view this as, like, one of the biggest mistakes I ever made; that doe that died of mastitis never should have died, because she had mastitis early in her last lactation, and I treated her, and the symptoms went away. But her SCC counts kept coming back from the lab sky-high. And I ignored them, because she had no symptoms. And then she freshened, and two days after she freshened, she’s, like, in the corner with a cold udder. So when the, you know, the necropsy came back and said she had mastitis, I just felt horrible, you know? Because it’s like, “Oh my gosh, I should have should have done more in her last lactation,” you know, “when I saw that her SCC counts were still high.” And so, I think that’s actually a really good argument for doing CMTs on your whole herd on a somewhat regular basis. Like, would you say that’s a good idea?
George McCommon 16:24
I’d say that’s a great idea. Because you are going to have those that are just very subclinical. You’re not really noticing it. You know, the udder is not big and hot and hard. But we are… You know, we do have an infection. And it’s just, I always compare it when I’m talking to my students to, like, an Olympic athlete. You know, he has just a little bit of a cold. That’s the difference between him winning the gold medal, and him not. You know, I started out life as a racehorse veterinarian, and that was one of the big limiting factors, was you’d have these young horses—you know, 2, 3, 4 years old. And it’s like daycare: You take them—all the young guys—you put them all together, right next to everybody, and everybody coughs on everybody. So, everybody has this little low-level infection that, you know, it’s the difference between winning the race and losing. And the same with mastitis with goats.
George McCommon 17:17
And, you know, the other thing we always talked about with goats is parasitism. And a lot of times, you just have a low level of parasites throughout everybody; nobody’s really sick. Nobody’s dying. But there’s that low level of performance. You’ve got that decreased performance. And I really think subclinical is always one of the most acute areas—because we all recognize the broken leg. You know, you can see that. But, do you really see that there’s just a little bit of mastitis? Do you really see that there’s just some worms? You know? Like I say, subclinical can be the difference between making money and not making money.
Deborah Niemann 17:54
George McCommon 17:55
If that’s your goal.
Deborah Niemann 17:56
Right. Or even, I mean, just to make sure that your goats aren’t costing you too much. Because, you know, I tell people, like, you should be able to come out ahead if, like, even if you just want goat cheese and stuff. Because goat cheese is really expensive. So, like, your animals should usually be healthy and producing at their optimal level. And if they’re not, you know, try to figure out why.
George McCommon 18:20
You’re exactly right. And it’s just getting everything to that optimal level. You know, some industries, everything… The profit margin, if you will—if that’s what you’re going for—can be so tight. That can be very, can be problematic. But then, there’s the other side of that. When we talk about getting them to the optimal level, when you kind of overdo it, and you’re spending so much money on this, and you’re spending so much money on that, you know, then it’s hard to make a living with it.
Deborah Niemann 18:50
Yeah, exactly. I know, my first five years with goats, I spent a fortune trying everything under the sun. And ultimately, it came out to copper deficiency. And in the meantime, I spent a small fortune purchasing everything else in the world that had the word “goat” on the label, trying to help them with all of the different problems they had with fertility, and parasite resistance, and all that kind of stuff. And it wasn’t until we figured out like, “Oh, this is the problem.” Like, “This is the one thing we need to fix, and all the rest of it will be good.”
George McCommon 19:27
And it’s so true sometimes. And sometimes, it’s hard to find it. Sometimes, you know, it’s so easy. Common things happen commonly. And so, it’s so easy to kind of, you know, just jump to a conclusion. But sometimes it is something a little more complicated, something out of the ordinary.
Deborah Niemann 19:43
Yeah. And a CMT is really cheap. You buy that bottle, it dilutes out to a gallon, which—
George McCommon 19:49
Deborah Niemann 19:50
—could last… Now we know! It’ll last you forever. You don’t have to worry about it going bad. So, at least you’re not gonna have to throw away half a gallon of something. And so, like, I know I really liked, when we were on milk test, it was once a month. I would get this report back that would say what the SCC was. And so, I always kind of thought that like, well, if you did a CMT once a month, you should keep a pretty good handle on things. Does that sound like a good idea?
George McCommon 20:17
It does. And since you’re… I’m assuming you’d be doing each goat individually?
Deborah Niemann 20:21
George McCommon 20:22
You know, if you’re doing that, then you get to kind of really identify that Goat One is absolutely great, but Goat Two has a little low-level mastitis and there’s an issue there. Maybe we need to look at Goat Two and see if we’re doing something wrong. Or, if you notice that everybody has a little problem, then you really know that you need to kind of change something that you’re doing. It may be something as simple as just animal husbandry.
Deborah Niemann 20:50
Yeah. And I think what it is, at that subclinical level, like, I know I feel a lot more comfortable trying alternative things. You know, so like, if it did look like, “Oh, she’s got a little touch of mastitis. She doesn’t have any clinical signs yet.” That to me would be a good time to say, “Let’s try probiotics and see if this makes a difference.”
George McCommon 21:08
And I agree. I think that’s exactly right. And also, you’re not out a lot of money. You’re not having to stop milking—or depending on what your operation is. And that’s one of the beautiful things about probiotics. You can keep milking. You know, it’s a natural product. So, you’re not going to have residues.
Deborah Niemann 21:27
Yeah. Excellent. Well, thank you so much for joining us today! Is there anything else that you think people need to know about mastitis that we haven’t discussed yet?
George McCommon 21:35
I think this is great. And we really hope to come back and give you some results and some definitive… I just feel uncomfortable right now saying something, then six months from now go, “Ooh, I shouldn’t have said that.” You know?
George McCommon 21:48
But no. I think it’s just wonderful that you have a program like this, that you get information out—and in somewhat of an underreported area. You know, there are a lot of people with goats, and the goat population of the United States definitely just keeps getting larger and larger. And there are a lot of people that are very interested in it.
Deborah Niemann 22:07
Yeah. And I tell people all the time, like, there’s so much information online that’s over 20 years old. It’s completely, 180 degrees away from what we now know is correct. So, it’s really exciting for me to be in a field now where there’s so much research happening, and it’s just constantly changing. Like, we’re really starting to learn a lot about goats now.
George McCommon 22:32
And I mean, you know, when I think about things, when I graduated from school many decades ago—I started telling the students, I no longer measure a thing in years, I measure them in decades—that there were things that I was taught that really just weren’t necessarily a good idea. And not just about goats, but about other animals. And then, now there are things that we do that are very different.
Deborah Niemann 22:55
George McCommon 22:56
But thank you so much!
Deborah Niemann 22:58
Yeah. Thank you for joining us today! And I look forward to having you back in a year or so, when you’ve got your research completed.
George McCommon 23:04
I will look forward to it. I very much will. Please stay in touch.
Deborah Niemann 23:09
Deborah Niemann 23:12
And that’s it for today’s show. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to hit the “subscribe” button so that you don’t miss any episodes. To see show notes, you can always visit ForTheLoveOfGoats.com, and you can follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/LoveGoatsPodcast. See you again next time. Bye for now!