Around this time last year we noticed something strange happening in our goats. About ten of our goats were intensely itchy and it was always the same spot that they were scratching. We looked for lice (a common parasite in sheep and goats) but didn't find any. We researched on our own and talked with our vet, but couldn't find any answers. We thought maybe they were just shedding more of their winter coat and the itching would go away. Several weeks later we noticed that one goat scratched so much that it had developed a pretty significant wound on its neck. About the same time we noticed one of our goats was tripping on its front foot. Her name was "Dab", named after her ears which looked like someone doing the dab dance move (one ear straight out and one ear pointed down). One night, Dab was at the feed bunk when she received a swift butt from another goat. She fell down and wasn't able to stand herself back up. We absolutely panicked.
We took her to the local vet where she walked around for the vet to observe. We left with some potential diagnoses and a few empirical treatments, but no firm answers. She treated her with the tetanus antitoxin and sent us home with several doses of vitamin B1 (thiamine) to treat her with on the farm for the next few days. In goats, vitamin B1 deficiency is also called "goat polio" because of its potential neurological symptoms. We treated her as directed by the vet, but Dab didn't improve. We offered her a lot of support but felt super defeated.
Then we heard about another possible diagnosis from a local vet tech: meningeal worms. One of her goats recently had the disease. She sent us to Cornell University's website to check out their factsheet on the subject. When we read it we instantly knew that was exactly what she and the others with intense itching were infected with. We jumped on the recommended treatment, but Dab's infection had gone on too long to cure. We created a separate area for her to be in with food and water so the other goats didn't bother her. The pen was close to the others so she wouldn't feel lonely. Three to four times per day we went over to cut her limbs so she could eat fresh leaves like she would normally. After about a week of this, we went to check on her again and her rumen was bloated (because she wasn't able to stand up and move around to expel gas). "Bloat" alone is sometimes fatal for goats if untreated, and it was clear she wasn't going to recover from the meningeal worms. She was declining more every day and she was not able to have any sort of quality of life, so we made the very hard decision to put her down to rest. I balled my eyes out for a day or so, but we felt it was the most humane thing for us to do due to her grave condition and prognosis.
All the other goats showing signs of meningeal worms (constant itching/bare spots and stumbling/dragging hooves) received the recommended treatment regimen (see below) and fully recovered. One of the goats affected even started dragging her back leg, but because we started her treatment early on her extremity weakness actually improved. She didn't get all her strength back in her leg, but we were so thankful it didn't worsen. All the wounds the goats had scratched into their hides fully healed as well. The moral to this story is: know what meningeal worms are, look for the symptoms (especially in spring and summer), and treat it early!
We wanted to share our story and educate others about the symptoms and treatment for meningeal worms, so that other goat owners will hopefully be more aware of this disease that is curable if caught early on. See the list of symptoms, treatment regimen, and "Meningeal Worm Factsheet" by Cornell University below.
Symptoms of Meningeal Worm Infection:
- Difficulty moving around (stumbling, dragging a limb, general weakness).
- Complete paralysis of the hind limbs which results in a sitting position from which the animal cannot get up.
- Excessive itching/rubbing of one area (one side of the body) which leads to hair loss and/or a wound. (The skin feels different to the animal because the larvae is present in the spinal cord and those nerves close to the larvae are irritated. This results in an odd sensation in the skin that those nerves serve and thus the goat rubs that area.)
- Less common symptoms include: head tilt, walking in circles, rapid eye flickering, difficulty chewing.
- Usually appetite and body temperature remain normal.
Treatment for Meningeal Worm Infection:
- Fenbendazole ("Safe-guard" and "Panacur") 25mg/kg given orally once daily x 5 days. This is 5x the regular dose of fenbendazole. This specific oral medicine penetrates the blood brain barrier to access the central nervous system which means it is more effective if the larvae have already moved into the brain or spinal cord (usually the case).
- Banamine or dexamethasone can be used to help reduce inflammation which irritates the affected nerves.
- The life cycle of the meningeal worm starts in white-tailed deer. It is passed in the feces of the deer and is picked up by snails or slugs. The snails then pass it along in their mucus trail. The goats eat forage that has been contaminated with the infected mucus trail and the worm larvae then infect the goats. Therefore, in order to prevent the infection we must limit the exposure of the goats to infected snails and slugs and limit deer to grazing pastures.
- Pastures that border wooded areas are more likely to have deer living in them. Moist areas are more conducive to larval growth.
- Fields that have been cleared of trees within the last year are high risk areas.
- Guardian dogs may be helpful to prevent deer from grazing the same pasture as your goats.
Check out Cornell University's Deer Worm Factsheet above for more detailed information. All information describing symptoms, treatment, and prevention was derived from this factsheet. Other information was derived from personal experience.
I am not a veterinarian and strongly advise you discuss any potential diagnoses and treatment options with your veterinarian first. This article is for informational purposes only. Riebel Farms LLC and its authors will not be held liable for any use of the information provided.