Years ago, I noticed a scab on a doe’s mouth when I was milking her, and I freaked out. At that point, we no longer attended goat shows and had already had a closed herd for several years, so how could the doe have been exposed to sore mouth?
Then I noticed another doe, and I called the university vet hospital, and we decided to take them in for biopsies.
As soon as the vet professor saw them, he said, “If that’s sore mouth, it’s the wimpiest case I’ve ever seen!” because the does only had scabs on their lips. He explained that orf caused sores on all hairless parts of the body and that he had never seen a case that was isolated to the lips on all goats within a herd. (By the time of our appointment, multiple goats had scabs on their lips — and only their lips.)
The biopsies came back negative for orf. It turns out that the does had “pear mouth,” a nickname for a malady seen more often in the southwest when goats feast on prickly pear cactuses.
Just prior to the eruption of scabs on my does’ lips, my husband had cut a bunch of thistle with his scythe and stuffed it into the hay feeders in the barn. The goats gobbled it up, seemingly unaffected by the prickly barbs on the leaves. Had the orf virus been present on our farm, this would have been the perfect way for all of our goats to get infected, but as it turned out, they had simple bacterial infections.
The point of this story is that you can’t tell if it’s sore mouth by looking at it. (So, please don’t send me a picture of a sore and ask me if it’s orf.) The only way to know if sores are orf is to have them biopsied and sent to a lab.
What are the symptoms of sore mouth in goats?
In spite of its simple name, this condition is far more than a sore on the mouth. Contagious ecthyma, also known as orf or sore mouth, infects sheep and camelids as well as goats. The main symptom is that all hairless parts of the body can be covered in crusty sores, which are highly contagious to other small ruminants and humans.
Although the mouth is the most common place for sores, there may also be sores on eyelids, vulva, teats, and even places with little hair, such as ears and scrotum. However, a single sore in one of those places is probably not sore mouth, as it spreads like wildfire.
The sores are painful, so an infected goat might not eat much, which will lead to weight loss, and kids may even die when infected because their mouth is so sore that they stop nursing. They can even get sores in their mouths. Does may get sores on their teats if infected kids nurse.
Pus and scabs are highly contagious and can contaminate a pasture for years. Once an outbreak starts in a herd, it usually winds up infecting all goats, and if an individual goat does not get open sores on the mouth, it is possible that it is subclinically infected.
Infection rate in a herd is usually 100%, and if one does not have symptoms, they could have a subclinical infection. A subclinically infected animal is infectious and can infect other animals if sold. People who handle infected goats should always wear rubber gloves because of the risk of infection to humans.
How do you treat sore mouth?
No treatment is available, and it usually takes 3 to 6 weeks for the sores to heal.
Another confirmation that my does did not have orf was that the vet prescribed silver sulfadiazene cream for the goats, and the scabs began to heal within a few days. If it had been orf, the antibiotic would not have helped, and the infection would have had to run its course of several weeks. (Orf is a virus, and antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections.)
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Can sore mouth be prevented?
The best prevention is to buy from herds that have no history of sore mouth, and if you are buying sheep or camelids, also ask if they have had a history of sore mouth because it can be transmitted between these species.
Of course, it’s possible for someone to be dishonest, but you’ll have better luck if you buy from an established breeder than if you buy from the sale barn or from someone who is continually bringing in new goats, sheep, and camelids from a variety of sources.
“Don’t be tempted to vaccinate a clean herd, because the vaccine used is based on a live virus, and you run the risk of infection spreading before immunity has developed,” according to The Veterinary Guide to Goat Health and Welfare (2019).
The vaccine will cause a crusty sore at the site of the vaccine, and goats should be considered carriers for several weeks after vaccination.
If goats are infected, they will probably be immune for two or three years. Colostrum does not protect kids from infection, according to Sheep, Goat, and Cervid Medicine (2020). “The virus can persist in the soil for years and has survived in a laboratory environment at room temperature for 20 years,” which leads most people to conclude that once you have it on your farm, the pasture is contaminated for years.
That means all new goats will be susceptible to infection, and you will likely see repeated outbreaks in the future, which is why vaccinating is an option for herds that have already had an outbreak.