Mystery Goat Illness

Totes McGoats is suddenly extremely weak and uncoordinated. What is going on??

sick kid goat

Last week we walked into the barn to put the goats up for the night. (We do this every night to help protect them from coyotes and other predators.) We saw one of our kid goats lying in the corner wobbling her head back and forth. The other goats weren't anywhere close, so we knew she wasn't feeling well and something was wrong. We observed her for a minute or two and then grabbed the thermometer and took her temperature. Our thermometer wasn't working very well (of course), but it read 100.2 degrees Fahrenheit. A normal temperature is 101.5 - 103.5. Her ears and gums did feel cold and we were worried about her possibly being in shock. She was very weak and uncoordinated when she tried to run away from us. At one point her legs all sprawled out and she fell to the ground. She also kept shaking her head in a rhythmic motion like she was shaking her head "No." We figured with her uncoordinated movements and rhythmic head movements she had something neurological going on. The question was what was causing the neurological issues? The onset of her illness was rapid. The day before she was perfectly normal. We aren't veterinarians, but did some searching on the internet and used our experience to come up with these possible diagnoses below.

Differential diagnosis:

Meningeal worms (parasite that travels up the spinal cord and can put pressure on nerves and enter the brain)

Listeriosis (bacterial infection)

Polioencephalomalacia/"Goat Polio" (thiamine/vitamin B1 deficiency)

Trauma with a spinal cord injury

Potential Diagnoses Further Explained:

Meningeal worms:

  • We have dealt with meningeal worms several times now. We read that it is rare, but apparently not in our area. We have a whole article dedicated to meningeal worms and you can go to it here. Basically, the parasite travels up the nerves causing irritation to those nerves.
  • Symptoms include constant itching in the same place due to the nerve irritation (often resulting in wounds) and front or hind leg weakness which may or may not lead to circling (advanced disease).
  • This illness is treated with high doses of fenbendazole (Safe-guard, Panacur). 


  • Listeriosis (the encephalitic form, not abortion form) is caused by an infection with a bacteria that is eaten by the animal. It can be found in the soil, rotting/fermented feed, unclean feeders, manure, and the in the milk, urine, and drainage of the eyes and nose of infected animals.
  • Symptoms include uncoordinated movements, one-sided facial paralysis (with drooling from one side), circling (walking in a circle), fever, depression, loss of appetite, droopy ear or eyelid, red tissues around the eyes. The onset of symptoms is rapid and death usually occurs within 24 - 48 hours after symptoms begin.
  • Goats and sheep rarely recover from this disease, but aggressive antibiotic treatment can be attempted. Large doses of oxytetracycline or penicillin G are the recommended medications.

Polioencephalomalacia (PEM) or "Goat Polio":

  • Polioencephalomalacia (PEM) or "Goat Polio" is most often caused by a thiamine/vitamin B1 deficiency. (It is not related to the infectious viral disease in humans.) Thiamine is generated by the microbes in the goat's rumen (a different kind of stomach) and it plays a huge role in the metabolism of glucose, which the brain requires to function properly. Excessive sulfur intake may bind thiamine and make the it unavailable to the body and brain, effectively causing a deficiency of usable thiamine. If a farmer uses by-product feeds, for example wet or dry distiller's grains, this can cause excessive sulfur intake and result in a deficiency of available thiamine. Certain plants contain high amounts of sulfur as well and if the animal ingests a lot of these it can develop symptoms: cruciferous or brassica forages such as turnips, rape, mustard and oil seed meals. Finally, the medication amprolium (Corid) that is most commonly used to treat coccidiosis in goats can make the thiamine unavailable and cause symptoms. Thiamine deficiency causes destruction of neurons and swelling in the brain.
  • Early symptoms of PEM include partial to complete blindness, one-sided ear droop, unusual/exaggerated gait, dilated pupils, watery eyes. Advance symptoms include arching the head backwards as far as possible, loss of body control, inability to stand, and seizures. The animals can progress from early symptoms to advanced symptoms within hours. PEM can affect any animal, but is most common in kids/lambs.
  • Treatment includes injectable thiamine (minimum initial dose of 10mg/kg of bodyweight). The recommended dosing schedule is the above dose given twice daily x 2 days then once daily x 5 days. Additionally, anti-inflammatory medications can be given to help reduce inflammation/swelling in the brain. Sometimes there is marked improvement with the first dose of thiamine, but it may take up to 5 days to stand and full recovery in 2-3 weeks with the above thiamine treatments. PEM cases are thought to be sporadic and sometimes associated with a change in diet. Prevention includes making gradual dietary changes.

What We Did For Our Goat:

In our case, we felt that the most likely cause was the PEM/Goat Polio given it's rapid onset and in our experience the meningeal worms symptoms came on much more gradually. However due to the severe nature, rapid onset, and significant overlap of her symptoms with other diseases on the differential we sort of threw the kitchen sink at her and treated for several things to try to save her life. We gave her a dose of oxytetracycline (dosed by weight according to the label) to cover for listeriosis, a 5x dose (5x the dose by weight recommended on the label-this is the normal treatment dose for meningeal worms) of Safe-guard/fenbendazole to treat for meningeal worms (this has to be continued for 5 days for full treatment), an injection of thiamine/vitamin B1 to cover for PEM/Goat Polio (dosed as recommended by Michigan State University above), and meloxicam to reduce swelling and inflammation of her brain. The next morning we expected the worst, but found her to be surprisingly improved. She was more spunky (harder to catch) and was much more coordinated when she walked. She also had pretty much stopped the rhythmic head movements. We decided to continue the meloxicam and thiamine as recommended by Michigan State University (see link to resource below). We also continued treatments for meningeal worms (fenbendazole). Lastly, we kept her in a confined space with another goat to serve as a friend (Lucky happily agreed to help out), so that she didn't become the easy target for a predator and so that she didn't wear herself out and get left in the field somewhere.

As I write this we are about five days in to her treatments. Her rhythmic head movements have continued, but her gait seems to be a little improved. We will continue her treatment for the full duration that is recommended and then monitor her progress. I hope this article has been helpful for you. If you don't currently have a case like this you may have a similar situation in the future and hopefully it will give you some direction.


Polioencephalomalacia: Michigan State University

Listeriosis in Sheep and Goats: Michigan State University

Meningeal worm Factsheet by Cornell University

Disclaimer: 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.

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