Rabies in Goats

Episode 93
For the Love of Goats

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Although rabies in goats is not common, it is possible. In today’s episode we are talking to Dr. Kevin Pelzer, a Professor of Large Animal Clinical Science, Production Management Medicine at the Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, Virginia Tech.

We are talking about how goats can get rabies, as well as the symptoms, diagnosis, and vaccination options. Rabies in goats looks considerably different than the stereotypical rabid dog, and luckily humans are much less likely to get rabies from their goat on the rare occasion when a goat does get infected. Goats are also unlikely to give rabies to each other.

Although there is not a rabies vaccine labeled for goats, we discuss the best option that is available, and why you should avoid the dog rabies vaccine.

Other episodes with Dr. Kevin Pelzer

For more info about vaccines in goats, check out this podcast episode.

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Deborah Niemann 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! Welcome back. Today, we are going to be talking about rabies in goats. It’s really not something that is common at all, but I do get a lot of questions about this. So, I thought it would be really nice to have a professional talk about this and give us some more information.

Deborah Niemann 0:35
We are joined today by Dr. Kevin Pelzer, Professor of Large Animal Clinical Science, Production Management Medicine at the Virginia Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. Welcome to the show today, Dr. Pelzer.

Kevin Pelzer 0:49
Thanks for having me.

Deborah Niemann 0:51
So, rabies was really not something that was on my radar screen until people started asking me about it, like if they needed to vaccinate their goats for it and if it was something to really be concerned about, because it is a mammal disease that various mammals can have. And, when I started looking into it… Because, in Illinois—like, I imagine all states have this. The state vet has a website where they keep track of all of the rabies cases in the state. Usually, for us, it’s mostly skunks and bats. That’s usually all I see. But, a few years ago, I saw a cow. And, it just happened to be in the county next to us, which kind of freaked me out a little. So, ruminants can and have gotten it before. So, let’s go ahead and talk about that. Can you first just give us a little bit of a background on exactly what is rabies and how it affects mammals?

Kevin Pelzer 1:39
Rabies is a viral infection that affects the nervous system of animals. The way it’s transmitted is through saliva, or the nervous tissue—meaning the brain or the fluid associated with the brain and the spinal cord. The major means of transmission is through the saliva. And, that’s why we’re so worried about when a dog bites an individual, because that historically has been the means by which rabies is spread to people. The virus survives not very well outside of the body. So, once the saliva has dried up, or been exposed to ultraviolet light—or the sunlight—the virus dies. So, there has to be this intimate contact of the infected animal, its saliva, and the individual that potentially could be infected.

Kevin Pelzer 2:41
The carnivores are the animals that tend to be involved in the spread of the virus, because their bites are such that they cause tissue damage. And, with canine teeth, they inject the saliva into the tissues. And from there, once the virus is in the tissue, it actually migrates up the nerve tracks to the brain. And then, from the brain, it migrates from the nerve tracks down to the salivary glands, and then is excreted.

Kevin Pelzer 3:18
And so, one of the things that’s interesting about this is that the incubation period—or the time from exposure to the time when the animal develops clinical signs of rabies—is largely dependent on, obviously, the virus dose that the animal acquires during the initial contact with the infected animal, but also the location. So infections—or I should say “bites”—that occur on the face, the incubation time is going to be a lot shorter than if it was bit on the lower part of the leg, or, for example, the tail, for that virus to be able to migrate all the way to the brain. And so, the incubation period from the time of exposure until clinical development of signs generally is within about two weeks. But, in people anyway, there have been cases where individuals were exposed, and then a year later actually developed clinical signs. So, the timing from exposure to clinical signs is variable. And, that’s one of the hard things in regards to a diagnosis, is that oftentimes, we’re not aware that an exposure occurred because it had been so long ago, and we may have forgotten about that potential exposure.

Deborah Niemann 4:48
And sometimes—like in the case of bats. Like, they have such teeny tiny little teeth. Like, they’re like needles. You probably wouldn’t even know if they bit one of your animals.

Kevin Pelzer 4:59
That’s correct. In fact, that’s why, if you wake up in the morning and a bat is flying around your bedroom, you’re considered to have been potentially exposed to rabies. Because, as you said, those bite wounds are so small. Fortunately, we don’t have vampire bats. But, vampire bats are very prevalent in South America, and they play a significant role in spreading rabies to cattle, sheep, and goats in that country, because the vampire bats actually suck the animal’s blood. And so, those animals are, you know, targets for that species of bats.

Kevin Pelzer 5:44
Fortunately, here in the U.S., when we wind up getting in contact with a bat, it’s not that the bat is seeking us out for any particular reason. We may just encounter that bat, for example, in a woodpile. Or, in the case of an animal, the bat’s infected, it’s exhibiting clinical signs, it’s laying on the ground, and now the goat walks up to check it out—because they’re curious animals—and they nudge it and the bat bites. So, it’s a little bit different in the transmission in South America compared to the United States. But, as you did state, those little bites are very small. And, even in people without fur, it’s difficult, you know, to recognize that you were bitten.

Deborah Niemann 6:36
Yeah. I didn’t realize how small they were—because we see them flying around our farm at sunset. So, I know there’s plenty of them around us. But one time, we found a skeleton in the barn, and it was tiny. Everything about it was just so incredibly tiny. You know, like, the bones were, like, smaller than toothpicks, and the whole skull fit on the tip of your finger. So, that really drove home like, “Whoa, yeah, you would never have a clue if this thing bit an animal.”

Kevin Pelzer 7:03

Deborah Niemann 7:04
So, what are the symptoms? Like, I know, you think of rabid dogs are going to be, you know, really angry and, you know, possibly salivating a lot and biting people and stuff like that, because they’re a rabid dog. So, what exactly would you see in terms of symptoms in a goat?

Kevin Pelzer 7:22
Symptoms in a goat will be variable. Most of the time, you will observe a change in behavior, and then also their ability to walk. So, they’ll develop neurological signs where they’re stumbling or swaying, difficulty getting up, falling over, that type of thing. Some goats may, in regards to the behavior, actually butt, and come after people, that is unusual for that individual’s behavior. But, we don’t see the goat that’s, like, frothing at the mouth and, you know, chomping at people. And, that’s one of the disadvantages, I guess, when dealing with ruminants, is that because they don’t have the typical clinical signs that we perceive a dog that’s rabid has, that allows the potential for other animals and humans to become exposed.

Deborah Niemann 8:26
So, somebody contacted me one time and said her goat was suddenly being very, very aggressive towards people and animals and stuff like that. And I said, “Call your vet, because that could be rabies.” Because, I’ve also heard that sometimes they just get super lethargic.

Kevin Pelzer 8:41

Deborah Niemann 8:42
Which, if they’re lethargic, it’s like, okay. That’s, like, the symptom for everything that a goat could have. Like, “Oh, they’re laying in the corner and not doing anything.” At what point would you say that you need to call the vet?

Kevin Pelzer 8:55
I guess the big thing is knowing your animal, obviously. And, anytime you know something is abnormal is an opportunity to call the veterinarian. And, in regards to rabies, as you said, there’s a lot of things that could look like rabies. So, Listeria could look like rabies. Polioencephalomalacia—or polio—could look like rabies. Here in Virginia, we have a lot of P. tenuis, or the deer worm, and that could certainly produce clinical signs associated with rabies. So, a lot of those same conditions that mimic rabies, we need to be cognizant that that could be a problem.

Kevin Pelzer 9:44
One of the things that I always ask clients when we’re looking at neurological goats is, “Have you seen a lot of skunks in the area in Virginia? Have you seen a lot of raccoons?” Because, raccoons is a major means of transmission of rabies in this area. So, if those animals coexist with the goats, then that certainly increases my suspicion of a goat potentially having rabies.

Deborah Niemann 10:14

Kevin Pelzer 10:14
So, in regards to diagnosis, how do we tell the difference between rabies and Listeria and polio? There are some differences in that, one, with rabies, we often hear about, “They’re hydrophobic.” And, they’re not really hydrophobic. What happens is, they just can’t open up their mouths. And so, part of the physical exam is to evaluate the cranial nerves of the animal. And, those nerves are associated with innervation, mainly of the head. So, feeling their tongue. If you pull the tongue out and it stays out, then that’s a good sign it’s probably related to Listeria. If you can’t open the jaws, then that’s a worrisome sign of rabies, because you can’t manipulate the face like you normally should. In all those cases, anytime an individual’s dealing with a goat that’s exhibiting neurological or behavioral signs, one should take precaution and wear gloves when dealing with that particular animal. So, there are some things that we can rule in polio and Listeria at a higher list compared to rabies.

Kevin Pelzer 11:48
Unfortunately, there’s no diagnostic test approved to diagnose rabies in the live animal. And so, ultimately, a diagnosis of the condition occurs via taking a sample of the brain after the animal has died, and sending it to a state rabies lab, where they conduct what’s called a immunofluorescent antibody test on that brain, and then they look for the virus.

Deborah Niemann 12:19
And, if a goat does have rabies… Say that you’ve eliminated everything else. You know it’s not deer worm, or polio, or any of those other things. There is no treatment for rabies, correct?

Kevin Pelzer 12:32
That’s correct. There is no treatment for rabies. And, one of the things also that you can look at in regards to diagnosis of rabies is if you diagnose polio, or if you diagnose Listeria, obviously, depending on when you find those animals and the state of infection that they have, they may not respond to treatment. However, if you feel like you’ve caught those two conditions early, and you treat them appropriately, and you don’t feel like you’re getting the response that you should, or the animal continues to deteriorate quickly, then rabies needs to get a little higher on the probability list. Most animals, once they show clinical signs of rabies, die within 2 to 5 days after they start exhibiting those signs. Now, there are always exceptions to the roles and some cases have—you know, once developing clinical signs—have lived to 8 to 10 days. But, for the most part, at least within ruminants—cattle and sheep and goats—once clinical signs develop, they die within several days after the diagnosis or symptoms arise.

Deborah Niemann 13:56
Okay. And then, every now and then I have people ask me about vaccinating for rabies. And, in the 20 years, I’ve been raising goats. I’ve only known a couple people who’ve done that. One had some very, very expensive goats—like, record-breaking, national champion kind of goats. And, the other one was concerned about liability when people were visiting her farm, so she thought that she should do that. Maybe I should back up a second and say, there is no rabies vaccine labeled for goats. So, can you talk a little bit about what vaccine people use, and whether or not that’s even a good idea?

Kevin Pelzer 14:35
So, you’re correct in that there is no FDA-labeled rabies vaccine for goats. There are a couple of rabies vaccines that are approved for use in large animals, and that includes sheep. So, although sheep and goats aren’t the same, they’re kind of close. So, that’s the vaccine that one would use if they were going to vaccinate for rabies, would be the one that would be approved for sheep or cattle.

Kevin Pelzer 15:09
The other aspect of that is, like you said, you had the friend that had the goats that had superior genetics, and they vaccinated for those. Many of the state fairs have started requiring rabies vaccine for any goats that are exhibited. It’s been probably 5 or 6 years ago, but there was a goat up in New York at a state fair that had rabies. And once that occurred, New York said, “Well, all show goats are going to have to be vaccinated for rabies,” even though there isn’t an approved vaccine.

Deborah Niemann 15:48
Oh, interesting.

Kevin Pelzer 15:50
And, what that means in regards to goats, and their not being able to be vaccinated with an approved vaccine, is that for the individual goat, the vaccine probably provides protection against rabies. But, having been vaccinated for rabies, and you’re a goat, it gives you no protection from the law. You’re still considered not having been vaccinated for rabies when it comes to public health issues.

Deborah Niemann 16:24
Oh, that’s very interesting. So, it’s also interesting that you said that there is a sheep vaccine for rabies that can be used, because I was just talking to this person yesterday in preparation for our chat today, and she said that she was concerned about liability. She switched vets, and her new vet told her that it really was a waste of time, because the previous vet had been using the dog vaccine for rabies. And so, her new vet was like, “That’s really not helpful,” but didn’t mention that there was a sheep vaccine.

Kevin Pelzer 16:57
Yes. I’m not sponsoring or have any affiliation with this vaccine. But, the one that I could find, and that we use here at the veterinary school, is a vaccine called IMRAB, and it’s for large animals. So, the dog and cat vaccine probably is not appropriate for goats. And, like I said, you would be better off utilizing the vaccine that’s approved for large animals, because I don’t know if there’s a difference in the amount of antigen against the rabies virus in those vaccines, and what type of adjuvants they use, and that type of thing. So, obviously, you have to go and use the vaccine as a veterinarian in an extra-label fashion. But, the recommendation among most large animal veterinarians is that, use the vaccine that’s approved for large animals.

Deborah Niemann 18:02
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I mean, certainly, you’re gonna have a much better chance of it doing some good if it’s a sheep vaccine than if it’s a dog vaccine. Dogs are just so incredibly different than goats—or ruminants in general.

Deborah Niemann 18:14
So, is there anything else that people need to be aware of when it comes to rabies?

Kevin Pelzer 18:20
The big thing is just to have cognition of other wild animals that are around. As those wild animals increase, the potential risk for rabies increases. One good thing is that I can’t find a reference or a case report of where a ruminant—cow, sheep, or goat—transferred rabies to an individual. So, the amount of virus that’s shed by animals, obviously, is variable by the individual, but it’s also variable by species. So, it’s not to say that you won’t, or you couldn’t possibly, get a case of rabies from the saliva of an infected cow, sheep, or goat. But, having said that, the good thing about that is that if you have one animal that has or comes down with rabies, it’s not likely that that animal will have infected other animals that, you know, is pastured or lives with it in the same area. That it’s more likely going to be transferred, as we mentioned earlier, by some type of carnivore—and usually it’s a wildlife species that’s doing that. Skunks, or possibly groundhogs and raccoons, and potentially the bats.

Deborah Niemann 19:48
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And then, you know, a dog would be digging that saliva into your skin with their canine teeth. Whereas goats have flat teeth like we do. And they’re probably not going to be biting anyway, mostly butting heads or just butting and things like that, where there’s not going to be any kind of saliva transfer between the animals.

Kevin Pelzer 20:09

Deborah Niemann 20:10
Well, this has been really interesting, and I think is gonna be really helpful for a lot of people. Thank you so much for joining us today!

Kevin Pelzer 20:16
Oh, you’re welcome. It was a pleasure to meet you and to be helpful in disseminating a little bit of information.

Deborah Niemann 20:25
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!

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