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How Goats Can Alert You To Their Health Issues

Experienced goat herders know that each goat has their own unique personality. Their quirks can be a way of alerting you to their ailments.

If you’ve already read, So, You Want a Goat? Here Are the Challenges You’ll Face, you already know that Stella, our herd queen, is no shrinking violet.  She rules over her herd with a no-nonsense approach that maintains order through ever watchful diligence and by quashing uprisings and disputes before they get a chance to escalate.  Stella is so firmly established as the Law within the herd that she rarely has to become physical.

Stella is always first up in the morning, first out to browse, first to the gate and first to the goodies.  She leads the herd wherever we want them to go and they follow her obediently.  Within the herd, she’s a force to be reckoned with.  She’s everything we could hope for in a queen that must rule over a pastured herd.

We have gotten to know Stella and her winning personality and come to expect certain things from her. It was because of this indomitable spirit that we realized something wasn’t right with Stella.

It started a few weeks ago one evening as we called the herd in.  There was Stella, as usual, leading the way, but she seemed a little off- nothing we could put on finger on – just a sort of malaise.  She wasn’t as loud or as brassy.  She almost seemed quiet.  Her step wasn’t as quick and it seemed like she was struggling a little to stay in the lead.  The other goats were gaining on her as they all came up the hill and Stella seemed aware that she was losing the comfortable lead she normally has between her and the rest of the goats to be first in line for treats.  We watched her for a few minutes after we had them in the shelter, but nothing seemed amiss, so we shrugged it off and went home for the evening.

The next morning when we showed up to let the goats out to forage, she seemed perfectly like Stella.  She headed out to forage down the hill with the same confidence and speed we were used to seeing in her.  But again, come evening, something was wrong.  The next morning would be uneventful as the last, but by evening, we knew something wasn’t right.  Stella had slowed down considerably.  She didn’t want to walk up the mountain to the pen and seemed very distressed that she was falling behind the rest of the herd.  About two-thirds up the hill, she stopped completely.  She stood rooted to her spot and calling out to us.

We hiked down the mountain to see what was wrong with her.  We checked her feet, her eyelids, ran our hands over her body trying to find tender or swollen spots, and even flexed her limbs looking for a sprain.  We looked around to see if there was a hidden danger like a snake or a predator hiding in the brush or trees.  Everything checked out fine and we were flummoxed.  Unable to find anything wrong, we gently urged her up the hill and penned her in with the herd.

On the fourth evening, Stella wouldn’t come up the hill at all.  We hiked to the bottom to go get her and wondered aloud to each other how we were going to get this big doe up the mountain if she seriously refused to budge.  Again, we checked everything we could think of to decipher why Stella refused to walk up the mountain and again we found nothing wrong.  This time we had to put a lead on her to get her to follow us and it was then, walking side-by-side, that we heard the click.

We couldn’t pin-point where the sound was coming from, but it was definitely coming from Stella.  We manipulated her joints again, but couldn’t hear any clicking.  When we got her to the top of the hill and into the enclosure where the goats sleep at night to keep them safe from predators, Stella didn’t want to hang out with the rest of the goats.  There was no mistaking now that her attitude had changed.  She was withdrawn and seemed disinterested in her surroundings.

As we were examining her yet again, we paused for a moment to brain-storm what could be wrong and to comfort her with a back scratch.  Stella stood patiently until we scratched her hips.  A light touch didn’t bother her, but when I placed my hands flat across her hips and pushed down with any pressure, she bleated in pain and tried to get out from under the pressure.  We called the vet that evening.

The next day our vet, who is very familiar with goats, came out to examine Stella.  She listened to her rumen and discovered that it was a little too quiet.  A quite rumen can mean death for a goat.  Goats, like all ruminants, have multi-chambered stomachs.  The rumen is the largest chamber.  It contains crucial microorganisms (bacteria and protozoa) that are essential for digestion.  If this chamber doesn’t have a healthy, active colony of microorganisms, the goat will develop life-threatening illnesses.

Stella had been exposed to a buck earlier this year while she was in season, and if pregnant, is due to kid in December.  Because of this, the most likely cause of her quiet rumen would be a metabolic condition called ketosis.  Ketosis is also known as fatty liver disease or pregnancy toxemia.  In some ways similar to diabetes in humans, ketosis is caused by a high energy demand during the last few weeks of gestation.  Large kids, multiple kids, or does who are in poor condition or over-conditioned are at risk.  As the kids grow during pregnancy, they demand more nutrition from the dam.  The rapidly growing fetus(es) compete for glucose in the doe’s blood supply and the doe starts to lose out.  To compensate, her body will rob her fat stores in order to maintain normal glucose levels.  When the doe is unable to maintain sufficient amounts of energy, ketones accumulate in the blood due to the fat being metabolized.

An easy way to test for ketosis in goats is to use over-the-counter (OTC) test strips.  Simply hold the test strip in the urine stream and the strip will change color letting you know if there are ketones present.  Unfortunately, Stella didn’t need to go pee while we had the vet on hand, so the vet used the alternative method: a blood test.

Her test came back negative, but something was obviously going on.  Stella’s Body Condition Score (BCS) fell within an acceptable range- neither too fat nor too thin and although she was still eating, she didn’t seem her usual enthusiastic self over the prospect of getting a carrot or other treat.  The vet also ruled out any issues with her hooves.  The asked us to lead Stella around in order to watch her gait.  The vet also heard the clicking and also noticed that each time Stella stopped moving, she would hold her back legs out behind her instead of properly placed under her body.

With tests and observation, the vet was able to diagnose Stella with osteoarthritis in her knees.  Our herd is tested for caprine arthritis and encephalitis (CAE) which is the leading cause of infective arthritis in goats.  Stella’s blood work had come back negative, as had the rest of the herd.  Less common is traumatic arthritis.  Stella, our bossy, brassy take-no-prisoners herd queen had likely suffered an injury to her knees prior to coming to our farm that didn’t manifest any symptoms until the weather turned cold recently.  Her sore, stiff knees made it difficult for her to get up the mountain (when more weight is placed on the hind legs), but didn’t show when she went down the mountain (when body weight shifts more to the front legs).  We discovered the source of the click.

And just like humans with osteoarthritis, the cold weather made it worse.  Stella was in pain and the pain made it difficult for her to forage and caused her to gradually lose her appetite.  Without adequate forage, Stella’s rumen was shutting down and she wasn’t getting enough energy to keep up with the increased caloric requirements of very cold weather.  Inadequate feed intake, elevated stress and pain, middle-age, and the additional caloric requirements to keep warm had created very similar demands on her metabolism that are found in late-term pregnancy.

It’s likely too, that Stella recently re-injured her knees and then forfeited her already diminishing foraging opportunities in order to maintain her herd queen status.  All social species maintain a pecking order within their ranks.  It comes as no surprise that those at the bottom of any social structure can have a difficult time getting their share of food, but what is sometimes overlooked is that those at the top can spend so much time trying to retain their position, they’ll starve themselves.

Oh, Stella, you hard-headed goat!

Stella is resting comfortably in the big, warm barn with a few of her more submissive royal subjects to keep her company (for what is a queen without subjects to rule?) that we usually reserve for kidding and convalescing while we wait for a winter storm to pass.  The vet recommended that we treat her for ketosis even though the test was negative to ward off the possibility of her developing it.  Ketosis is so deadly and so difficult to treat past the early stages that we chose to be better safe than sorry.  Her prognosis is excellent and the vet expects she’ll have a full recovery.

Long Live the Queen!

This article was originally published at Ready Nutrition™ on December 25th, 2015

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