Mycoplasma in Goats

Episode 99
For the Love of Goats

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If you had a doe with mastitis, a kid with stiff joints, and another kid with pneumonia, would you ever assume that all three were infected with the same disease? If mycoplasma is in your herd, it could cause all of these seemingly unrelated illnesses.

In this episode, Dr. Claire Burbick of the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory talks about this fascinating disease that can cause a wide variety of symptoms, is challenging to diagnose, and equally challenging to treat.

Dr. Burbick talks about why penicillin does not work for mycoplasma, as well as how ear mites can transmit the bacteria between goats, in addition to other methods of transmission.

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Introduction 0:03
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 0:18
Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode. I am really excited about this topic today, because I’ve known one person who had an outbreak of mycoplasma on her farm a number of years ago, but, other than that, I personally have had no experience with it. And so, I haven’t looked into it a whole lot. But, as I was preparing for today’s interview, I learned a lot of really interesting things, and I’m looking forward to learning some more. And, we are joined today by Dr. Claire Burbick from the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory to talk about mycoplasma in goats. Welcome to the show today, Dr. Burbick.

Claire Burbick 0:56
Thank you so much for having me.

Deborah Niemann 0:58
I am so surprised at some of the stuff I was reading about mycoplasma today, because the symptoms are just kind of all over the place. The testing is some of the strangest I’ve ever heard of. So, let’s just get right to it. Can you go ahead and talk about the symptoms a little? And, how crazy is it that, like, if you could have one goat that has mastitis, another goat that has arthritis, and another goat that has pneumonia, that that could all be related?

Claire Burbick 1:25
Yeah. And, I think that’s one of the most interesting parts about mycoplasma infection, is that it’s really complex. And so, you can have what seems to be a lot of unrelated things. And typically, those would be a complex or syndrome that would involve mastitis; it could involve eye infections; it can involve a joint infections; and it can involve respiratory disease; and even abortions. So, you can see a lot of really different types of presentations. And usually, you’re seeing multiple of those things within one herd. So, you’ll see, like, oh, you have a few does that have mastitis. And then, you have some kids with swollen joints, and maybe some floppy ears. There could be some coughing goats in there, as well. And, that can all be signs of a mycoplasma problem, because you’re seeing the diversity of disease that might actually put mycoplasma on your radar, just because you’re like, “Wait a second, I have all these very random things in a few goats here and there,” but they could all be very tied together because of the way mycoplasma works.

Deborah Niemann 2:36
Yeah, that is just amazing. So, what kind of testing is available, then?

Claire Burbick 2:42
So, the testing is interesting. So, unfortunately, it can be a little bit difficult to actually diagnose mycoplasma infection, which kind of goes along with it being this sort of nebulous, you know, disease-causing agent within our herd. And so, the easiest way I would say to diagnose it is if you have an animal that’s succumbed to the disease, and we are actually able to get tissues—so lung tissue, synovial tissue, mammary gland tissue, things like that—would probably give us our best hope.

Claire Burbick 3:24
And, it’s a little bit tricky, because mycoplasmas are very fiddly. They’re very fastidious. They’re hard to grow. They have really interesting requirements for growth on media. And so, a lot of labs might not necessarily have the media appropriate for that particular mycoplasma to be able to culture it. So, a lot of times, if the lesions in the animal look consistent with a mycoplasma infection, we’ll try and do some PCR or molecular testing from tissue samples that are collected from animals that have died for antemortem diagnosis. So, when animals are just sick on the farm, there’s a lot of different sample types that could potentially be used. And, there’s recommendations to actually submit kind of a diverse array sometimes, to really try and get at the mycoplasma diagnosis. So, that could be potentially ear swabs; like you said, we can actually see mycoplasma colonization in the ear canal. And so, that can be a place. Milk, obviously, if there’s mastitis problems. Joint fluid. Respiratory secretions. Those are probably the most common for, depending on what you’re seeing, if it’s more respiratory versus joint versus mastitis. And, if you’re seeing maybe some reproductive issues, a vaginal swab, something from the reproductive tract could be used as well.

Claire Burbick 4:51
The only caveat to some of that is that there’s a lot of mycoplasma that just hangs out on mucosal membranes. And, it can really complicate trying to find the more “bad actor” mycoplasmas, because, you know, they’re obviously the same genus. They, you know, can be closely related. But unfortunately, one could be normal flora—or what we consider normal flora—and one might be something that we would consider more of a primary pathogen. So, that also kind of complicates how we do it. So, trying to find the right body site niche can be challenging; the growth of them in the culture is challenging; PCR can be challenging, because, you know, depending on how specific we look, we might miss other things. You kind of really have to work at getting a diagnosis. Unfortunately, it can be pretty challenging.

Deborah Niemann 5:46
Yeah, this sounds like the most challenging disease we’ve ever talked about on the show. I mean, it’s just all over the place in terms of symptoms, and then the testing is challenging.

Deborah Niemann 5:57
So, I was reading about this, and like so many other things, it’s contagious, and you usually bring it onto your farm with the purchase of a new animal. So, you know, if you’ve got a closed herd, and you’re buying new animals, and you put those new animals into quarantine, is there some kind of testing that you could do with the animals while they’re in quarantine to make sure that they’re not carrying mycoplasma?

Claire Burbick 6:24
That is a very, very broad question. So, you know, obviously, you can sample mucosal surfaces. So nasal cavity, reproductive tract, ear—you know, like we talked about. The problem is, is that it’s not a guarantee that you’re going to pick it up. So, it can kind of hide out in various places, and that might not be the place you’re sampling in that particular animal. Or, it could be very low levels, which are below our level of detection. So, it’s really difficult to evaluate individual animals to say, “Oh, this one is fine. This one’s not fine.”

Claire Burbick 7:01
So usually, when I talk to people—and it’s kind of unsatisfying—is really know the health history of the herd that you’re going to be purchasing at. Do they have respiratory issues? Have they had mastitis? Have they had joint…? You know, what are some of the health concerns that have been dealt with, you know, kind of historically there, which could give you maybe some sense that, you know, it’s well-managed; they have very little disease that they’re dealing with. And so, likely, those animals are coming from a place that, you know, hasn’t overly had to deal with it, if that makes sense?

Claire Burbick 7:36
I mean, I think one of the issues, you know, that also is very difficult with mycoplasma is we have these kind of, you know, chronic carriers. And so, those ones are really just super, super difficult to detect. And so, kind of the recommendation is really to just, you know, try to know where you’re getting the animals. Make sure that they have a good physical exam. They appear to be very healthy. When they are moved, you know, and have gone through a stressful situation, such as movement, that they do have a quarantine period, so you can see if there’s anything developing. And then, obviously, monitoring anything that’s going on, you know, once those new animals are introduced.

Claire Burbick 8:19
You know, I think one of the big kind of X factors that goes along with a lot of what’s going on with the mycoplasmas that we see in the United States is that it’s really kind of a component of the what we call “diseases of management.” And so, if your animals have a good plan of nutrition; they’re not having parasite burdens; they’re not overcrowded; you know, they’re in an environment that reduces stress on them, the likelihood of developing a mycoplasma situation is reduced. So, you can actually kind of hedge your bets a little bit with just kind of your management approach, even if you can’t necessarily keep mycoplasmas out of your herd in a very easy manner. So, that’s kind of why I try and, you know, really emphasize that mycoplasmas can be managed with good management, kind of along with other bacterial infections, and trying to make sure that we’re not setting up animals and making them more susceptible to things that kind of are normally kicking around in the herd.

Deborah Niemann 9:26
Okay. The person I knew who had an outbreak in her herd—it’s probably been 10 years now. The thing that she had the problem with was kids dying from pneumonia. They would seem like they were healthy, and then she would go out there, and they would be dead. And initially, the necropsies were just saying “pneumonia.” And then, I guess somebody got the idea, like, “Oh, maybe mycoplasma is at play here.” And, they figured that out. And, with all the testing that they did, they could never figure out where it came from. Like, all of her adult does were testing negative, even though, like, what I was reading is that it is transmitted through the milk. So, the kids were getting it through the milk. And then, to get it under control, they basically started treating the whole herd similar to what you would if they had CAE or something, which was to take all the kids away at birth and pasteurize the milk. Is that pretty much what you have to do once you recognize that you have a problem?

Claire Burbick 10:24
Yeah. And, I think that’s one of the things—again, it kind of goes back to looking at those management factors. Because, there’s been some publications. I was just kind of looking at, you know, reviews of stuff where there were situations, it may be pneumonia, it may be joint infections in those kids, but really, you know, we can use sanitation. You know, because they’re getting it from the older animals. And so, you know, contact with older, colonized animals would be a risk. Making sure that anything that is traveling between those older animals and the kids—which would be you. Because, you would definitely be a source of potential transmission, as well. But, also bottles, anything that is being used to feed them, any, you know, fences that they can touch noses would be something. And, I think a lot of the interventions at that point would be to just, you know, try and break that cycle of transmission until they’re less susceptible, you know, as they get older.

Claire Burbick 11:27
So, in the literature, that’s really what’s recommended, is to try and manage away from it through, you know, sanitation; segregating animals by age is a good one; you know, making sure that you’re not introducing new animals from unknown sources, etc.; and making sure that there’s no underlying mineral deficiencies or anything like that, as well—other diseases that could potentially be making them more susceptible.

Deborah Niemann 11:54
So, are kids more likely to get it then other adults, then?

Claire Burbick 11:58
Yeah. In general, for the respiratory, joint stuff. You would see that mastitis seems to be the bigger concern with the older animals, but they can certainly get kind of the whole spectrum as well. And, it’s a little bit tricky to to kind of generalize, because one of the also interesting things about mycoplasmas is there’s a lot of variation—strain variation. So, that can really make things more or less virulent. So, you could have a totally naive herd that gets introduced, you know, a very virulent strain of one of the mycoplasmas that can just really, really kind of decimate all age groups. Or, you can have the situation where, you know, you have kind of a basal level of infection, and then it’s just the young animals that are newly exposed that are the most affected.

Deborah Niemann 12:52
Okay. So, like, if you brought in one adult doe that had it, it seems like her kids would be pretty likely to have it, because of their proximity to her, and their nursing, and all that kind of stuff. Would she be likely to give it to other goats? Is it mostly transmitted through bodily fluids or…?

Claire Burbick 13:10
Yeah. So, kind of the most likely way that it would be transmitted is through kind of nose-to-nose contact. There is some data to suggest that it can be aerosolized and travel a little ways, but it’s mostly through close contact. Yeah.

Deborah Niemann 13:26
Okay. So, one of the things that I found interesting in Sheep, Goat, and Cervid Medicine is they mentioned that they might be related to ear mites, or that ear mites could play a role in transmission. Is it a special ear mite? Or, just any ear mites? So, if somebody has a goat with ear mites, could that be a mycoplasma carrier? Of course, it has to have it. But, is it a separate species of ear mite, or no?

Claire Burbick 13:55
So, I think there was suggestion that maybe it could be… So, we kind of have, like, two kinds of insect vectors—we call them “mechanical” vectors—which are… They’re not getting infected themselves, but they’re able to—just because they’re contaminated with the pathogen—that they can then move the pathogen, you know, on their feet, or their mouthparts, or whatever into another susceptible animal. And so, that, you know, certainly is possible, but I don’t think it’s been, you know, terribly well explored or documented. I mean, it would make sense if an ear mite from an infected animal that had some, you know, earwax or debris that was on it that, you know, was able to get to another animal. That’s possible. But, I think probably the bigger issue is just that nose-to-nose contact.

Deborah Niemann 14:48
Okay, good to know. And then, it sounds like it’s gonna be challenging, but I’m gonna ask: How challenging is it to treat these? Like, is a mycoplasma mastitis worse than your standard mastitis? Are the mycoplasma pneumonia worse than other pneumonias.?

Claire Burbick 15:05
So, it can be. And, the sad part about all of this is there’s not a ton of controlled studies that really look at therapy for treating these diseases. Mycoplasma is a little bit interesting. It doesn’t have a cell wall. So, beta-lactam drugs, like penicillins and things like that, are not going to be effective, just because of the way the bacteria is. And so, there are studies that have used antimicrobials. But, there’s kind of this question mark of, you know, “Are we creating more of a carrier state by using antimicrobials? Is it really being necessarily eradicated? Is it more of just sort of like a decay that needs to happen for the bacteria to go away? Do they ever go away?” I think there’s a lot of question marks there. Antimicrobial therapy does seem to help resolve clinical signs. So, I think it can be effective that way. But, will it actually what we call, you know, give a “microbiologic cure”? So, get rid of the bacteria? That is a little bit of a gray area.

Claire Burbick 16:18
And, I think a lot of it is trying, you know, how do you sample? Where is it hanging out? You know, it can kind of go to a lot of different places, because it causes a lot of different things. And so, it can be complicated to say, “Oh, we got rid of it. It’s gone.” You know, it’s a little bit tricky to kind of say, “Oh, yeah, we got rid of it.” But, antibiotics have been shown to help if you catch it very early in infection.

Deborah Niemann 16:43
Okay. Do we know if animals can become immune to it once they have it?

Claire Burbick 16:48
So, the one also really unique thing about mycoplasma is they actually will change a lot of their surface molecules to avoid and evade the immune system. And so, that’s why, you know, we don’t have really great or any vaccines for mycoplasma, because it’s really great at changing what the immune response is reacting to. And then, you’ll have this other, you know, population with a different surface protein come up that the immune system is not able to recognize from the previous response. So, I think you can get some kind of partial immunity, but it’s really tough, because that’s what it does. It wants to live on those mucosal membranes; it doesn’t want to get kicked out by the immune system. And, it’s really cleverly adapted in changing its surface molecules to avoid the immune system. So, no. Long-winded answer: No.

Deborah Niemann 17:50
Wow, this is, like, the most interesting disease, I… Really. Like, I don’t know, I’ve just never heard of a disease so interesting. Like, everything about this just kind of seems to be like, “Whatever.”

Claire Burbick 18:05
Yes, exactly.

Deborah Niemann 18:06
You’ve mentioned a lot of really great things here. Like talking about, like, you know, management—of course. I know, I always come back to nutrition a lot, how important that is for the health of your goats and stuff, and your sanitation and management, all that stuff. So, we’ve already talked about the fact that there’s, like, really not a great test that you can do when you bring new animals into the herd. Is there really anything that people can do? Anything else? Like, I love all the suggestions you have already, but is there anything else that we haven’t talked about yet that people can do to prevent this coming into their herd?

Claire Burbick 18:39
Not that I can think of. I think it’s really, really tough with mycoplasma. We really are, I think, at a pretty distinct disadvantage. I think, luckily, we can kind of manage in a way to reduce, you know, the risk and reduce the severity of the potential disease. But yeah, I think it’s really, really tough. And, you know, just really having a good handle on what testing, what health problems have been from, you know, the herd of origin, if that’s possible. You know, sometimes it’s tricky to get that information. But, I think that historical data can give you more confidence, kind of, in what you’re bringing on farm—more than just a single-point-in-time test—because we can miss it. And unfortunately, we don’t have serology tests. You know, we can’t surveil, you know, through that to say, “Oh, this herd likely has mycoplasma,” or not. So, yeah, it’s really tricky.

Deborah Niemann 19:39
Yeah, it sounds like it. I know when I was reading about it, I was really surprised by all of the different types of mycoplasma, and then just knowing that they can… I don’t know if “mutate” is the right word. Are they mutating, and that’s why—or changing? Or, is it just that there’s a lot of different kinds that make this so difficult to treat and impossible to come up with a vaccine?

Claire Burbick 20:01
Yeah, I think it’s sort of like a mutation, but they’re really built to swap out all these different genes for proteins. So, it’s kind of their normal part of how they, you know, are to have these kind of quasi-species, I guess you would say, where they try and not be very homogeneous so that at least somebody is going to be able to hang out there based on how they’re expressing their different proteins.

Deborah Niemann 20:32
Well, as I’m listening to this… I think some people may be listening to this thinking, “Oh, my gosh, this is completely hopeless.” It’s just, like, the opposite of winning the lottery. But, I think the important thing that we can say here is that if you have, all of a sudden, a lot of goats that are sick with things that appear to be completely unrelated, that mycoplasma should be on your radar.

Claire Burbick 20:58
Yep. Absolutely. Yeah. And, I think a lot of times, too, what we’re seeing with mycoplasmas is that they’re in coordination with other things, like, you know, other bacteria that cause respiratory disease, or maybe there’s CAE in the background causing some immune dysfunction, or other virus. So, it’s really sort of, again—and maybe I just harp on this too much. But, we can manage it with management to really kind of reduce the likelihood that it’s going to rear its ugly head. You know, some situations… Like I said, super-naive heard, getting a strain introduced, that can be a totally different situation. And, I think that would definitely be on the radar. I mean, but I think, you know, for the majority of situations, a lot of times it’s just under the radar, but a component of these, what we call “polymicrobial infections” that can get in there and find a little toehold if there’s any stress or anything going on in the herd. And, that’s really where we see a lot of these very nebulous, like, a little bit of pneumonia, a little bit of mastitis. That’s kind of what the bigger challenge, more common situation, is.

Deborah Niemann 22:15
Yeah. Well, this has been really fascinating. Thank you so much for joining us today to talk about this incredibly complex disease.

Claire Burbick 22:22
Yeah. I just wanted to mention one other thing. So, we have, you know, mycoplasmas that are in the United States that we run up against causing these kind of different syndromes. But, there’s a couple of mycoplasmas that we consider foreign animal diseases, which I think it’s just important to remember, and that’s Mycoplasma agalactiae, and then there’s the mycoplasma that causes contagious caprine pleuropneumonia, which is Mycoplasma capricolum subsp. capripneumoniae—which is a ridiculously long name. But, those are actually reportable diseases. They’re are foreign animal diseases. We don’t have them in the United States. And, they can cause… So, the capripneumoniae causes really, really devastating pleuropneumonia. Just, I mean, could take out a whole herd. I mean, it’s like, that bad. Almost all the animals succumb to the infection and die, which is terrible. And then, the agalactiae, which causes a lot of the mastitis, joint infections, eye infections, and stuff, but more so the significant mastitis issues, and can just be very devastating—especially in the dairy goat world.

Claire Burbick 23:40
So, both of those we don’t see in the United States, but should kind of be in the back of people’s mind, too. Because, you know, things happen. Animals travel. You know, stuff can come in in weird ways. But, just know that there’s some mycoplasma that really raise the red flag, and can be somewhat difficult to differentiate from the ones that we see in the United States. Not to scare everybody to death. But, it’s always good to have, you know, just a little bit of like, “Hey…” You know, some of these can be pretty important for goat health, you know, in the United States.

Deborah Niemann 24:13
Yeah, exactly. So, if somebody traveled to a foreign country, and they were on a farm or in a rural area, is that something that they could pick up on their shoes and bring back?

Claire Burbick 24:23
It’s possible, but mycoplasmas are not super hearty. They don’t like to be in the environment. So, you know, I would say if it was, like, hand, foot, and mouth disease, yes, that could be a problem. And there’s, you know, some recommendations about not going on a farm for a certain period of time once you come back, if you’ve been in certain countries. So, you know, it’s certainly possible. I would recommend, you know, being careful about what you wear, you know, if you’re going to another farm—especially in a country that has some of these diseases. And then, coming back, maybe just getting rid of all of that stuff. Leaving it behind, and yeah, and really trying to make sure that you’re adhering to good biosecurity coming in and off of premises. Yeah.

Deborah Niemann 25:08
Yeah. That’s always good advice. Thanks for mentioning that. And, thank you for joining us today to talk about this really complex disease. I think this will definitely be helpful for people if they’re ever faced with what looks like a lot of completely unrelated illnesses in their herd.

Claire Burbick 25:25
Yeah, I think it’s one that’s… I call it “tiny but mighty” disease. It’s the smallest bacteria, but it can cause a lot of problems.

Deborah Niemann 25:34
Oh, yeah. It is fascinating. Like, if I could have a favorite disease… Well, I guess I can. Why not? My favorite disease now is mycoplasma. It’s just the weirdest.

Claire Burbick 25:44
It is. It’s incredible. Yeah. It’s a good one.

Deborah Niemann 25:49
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, and you can follow us on Facebook at See you again next time. Bye for now!

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4 thoughts on “Mycoplasma in Goats”

  1. Can these forms of mycoplasma in goats be transmitted to humans? I ask because I got very sick about 12 years ago with mycoplasma pneumonia, and I had just that week assisted with a Nubian goat kidding, sadly the two kids died shortly after birth. But I had given one mouth-to-mouth to try to revive it. I had asked the doctor if I could have gotten sick from that exposure. She tested me for Q fever and Brucellosis, and they came back negative. But the MP came back positive, with no mention that it could have been transmitted from the goats.

    • I wanted to check with Dr. Burbick on this, and she said …
      “No, the mycoplasmas aren’t considered to be zoonotic. I always say bacteria don’t always read the book but these type are not known to be a problem in humans.”

      Considering your exposure and the timing, however, I would say that I’d certainly be suspicious that it was caused by the goats. I’m quite sure they have never actually had test subjects get the kind of exposure that you had to know if it would be transmissible through a doe’s birth fluids in your mouth. That’s quite different than just attending a birth and getting the fluids on your hands.

      Getting a necropsy on the kids and placenta is always a good idea to get an idea why the kids died.

  2. We are currently dealing with a 3 year old Buck that tested positive for Mycoplasma Ovipneumonia. He has shown signs of mild coughing and nasal discharge for 4 months (every since we have owned him) never running a fever never lost his appetite, never acted sick (the only weird thing was in the a.m. his temperature was very low, below 100 degrees F). He has now been treated with 4 shots of Draxxin spaced 7 days apart. Going to send a nasal swab to the lab and see if there is any change. Thank goodness we quarantined him before allowing him near our herd. If any body has any experience treating Mycoplasma would appreciate input. thanks

    • As she said in the interview, there is controversy about treating them because even though they are no longer showing symptoms, they could now be a walking Typhoid Mary getting your other goats sick because the testing is not always accurate. You can’t rely on a negative test result. Someone I knew who had multiple kid deaths from mycoplasma never had an adult goat test positive, so she had no idea which goat was the carrier.


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