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The Liver Fluke

Unexpected and Undetected
Goat Owners Beware

By Jennifer Stultz

It was the crying that got me. When the other goats went out to pasture for the afternoon, she stood by the front gate and cried, maaaa, maaa, maaa. Maybe because she was a Nubian, I didn’t catch on right away, but it was because her behavior was unusual, even for a Nubian yearling, that I did notice and investigate her situation. The problem was I couldn’t figure out what her problem was. This little incident happened several years ago, and so many dairy goats ago, that I don’t even remember her name, but that red-brown Nubian yearling taught me a very important lesson about watching goat behavior and paying attention when something seems amiss. She also taught me about the liver fluke.

Nothing lends itself to good dairy goat management more than time spent in observation of the herd on a regular basis. It was because of my own “dream time” as I sometimes called it, that I noticed the red-brown Nubian yearling just wasn’t quite “right.” She had grown well as a kid but seemed to plateau as a late spring yearling. In fact, just a few days after noticing her crying at the gate, her coat, once shiny and thick, became rough and ragged. She ate everything put in front of her, everything needed for a well-balanced goat diet, but she grew weaker instead of stronger, and she cried instead of being satisfied and serene. I dewormed her, treated her for coccidiosis, tested her for CAE (which came back later—negative), clipped her feet, checked her teeth, and yet in two days she spiraled downwards in her overall health picture. And she continued to cry more than the normal goat. I gave her added vitamins, tempted her with browse and tree clippings. She ate, but ground her teeth and sagged in places a yearling shouldn’t sag.

I was at wit’s end with her when a fellow breeder asked if I had had her checked for liver fluke. Well, early on I had taken a fecal sample in to the vet office to be tested and at that time wormed with injectible Ivomec. But liver fluke? In Kansas? I thought that parasite was only a problem in wet countries or moist climates. Luckily for my little red Nubian doe, I found out in time that I was wrong in my limited knowledge about the liver fluke. And luckily, after my vet prescribed Ivomec Plus as a treatment, she recovered and grew shiny and plump and vivacious again, as a yearling Nubian should be. And lucky for all of us, after treatment she quit crying at the gate, quit grinding her teeth, and grew out of her temporary plateau into a serene and productive dairy goat. She may have been the exception, for often the liver fluke can kill a goat so quickly, the owner has little time to detect the problem.

What I learned from this experience was that an anemic, unthrifty appearance in a dairy goat can be a result of severe blood loss, low iron, dietary stress, etc., but more importantly, combined with progressive weakness and signs of pain, it might be the liver fluke disease. While a shot of iron might help improve the red cell level for a short period, the reason for the blood loss must be addressed immediately to save a goat’s life. If that reason is the liver fluke, only a complex, potent and dangerous drug of the hexacyclo-hexane group used with correct timing for treatment, and prescribed by a veterinarian is effective. (Leach)

The liver fluke, also known as liver rot or Fasciola hepatica, is a parasite of the liver that can affect sheep, goats and cattle. It is associated with wetter, warmer climates or muddy pastures. It commonly shows up in young ruminants exposed to pastures containing wet areas, and it’s not unusual for kids affected with it to die so fast they hardly have time to be sick. Once liver fluke gets a foothold, especially in a young animal, it quickly does severe damage to the liver, especially true if there are any colostridial organisms present in the body, since they multiply and secrete their toxins fast in the already damaged and poorly oxygenated liver tissue. (Hetherington)

The most difficult problem with liver fluke treatment/control is that the veterinary community in general might not be aware that it’s there. As a result, they’re unable to recommend proper treatment for it. This is because the egg of the liver fluke looks so similar to that of the barberpole (stomach) worm that when it shows up on the slide in the vet’s office, it’s routinely misidentified to be that of the stomach worm. The vet, seeing what looks much like a stomach worm will routinely recommend Ivomec to the owner as the wormer of choice to eradicate it. Rightly so, because the moment it appeared on the scene back in the early 1980s, Ivomec was recognized as the most effective general wormer to show up, ever. It remains still the best and most effective general dewormer on the market today. However, when the liver fluke failed to respond to Ivomec treatment in documented situations, the loss of the animal in question was assumed to be “resistance” to the effectiveness of Ivomec. This notion has now become so pervasive that the veterinary community in general believes that the worms affecting livestock have developed a resistance to Ivomec; the result being a recommendation to their clients that they increase the doses or turn to other wormers. Another answer to the problem has not been to treat, but to cull. Additional dosage or other wormers have not begun to slow the deaths being caused by liver fluke. Since neither of those suggestions works successfully, the most recent approach has been to set up Famacha classes to instruct owners and veterinarians alike in how to check the eyelids of the downed animals to see if they’re anemic. If the animals have pale eyelids, indicating they’re anemic, owners are sometimes advised to destroy the victim, fearing if it lives, the “resistance to wormers” will spread further. (McCoy)

The problem could be solved with a good set of reference photos specifically oriented to goat internal parasites. The barberpole worm and the liver fluke are almost identical in appearance. But on close examination the liver fluke is shaped like a football with pointy ends, whereas the barberpole worm is shaped like a football with more rounded ends. (McCoy)

Sadly neither Ivomec nor Pancur nor any of the other general wormers on the market today are effective against liver fluke. The fact is that this parasite can only be eradicated efficiently by using a product call Ivomec Plus. It’s not the Ivomec itself, but the plus part of the combined wormer, clorsulon, that effectively wipes out liver fluke. And since it only kills the adult of the species, clorsulon has to be used at regular doses, three times in a row, 10 days apart, to kill it off completely. For those who may have a liver fluke infestation, it is recommended that an initial whole-herd worming (at normal doses) be done on day one. When the adults and many of the left alive eggs have become larvae, approximately 10 days later, a second whole-herd worming should be done. Ten days after that second worming, a third whole-herd worming with Ivomec Plus should be done to wipe out the eggs that became larvae by the second worming and are now adults. Fecal tests at this point should show the egg population to be at an extremely low level.

Typical symptoms of a parasite or worm problem in the goat herd range from general unthriftiness, to rough coat, to a pot-bellied appearance, to anemia and weakness. The early symptoms of liver fluke problems can be deceiving because the animal may appear to be well fed and gaining in flesh at the beginning. This can change rapidly to the unobservant owner as the liver fluke sucks the life from its host, creating a dull coat, possible yellowish pus and tint to the eyes, nose and tongue, and even offensive breath. With a severe problem, diarrhea or constipation may appear, the hair may fall out, the muscles shrink and the stomach appears to sag. The head becomes droopy and loss of appetite and increased thirst become pronounced. (Leach)

A liver fluke invasion happens when goats are allowed to graze or browse wet, or poorly drained areas. In the case of my little Nubian, we have a rotational grazing system which includes a meandering creek, which in that particular year had overflowed its banks several times during a very wet and rainy spring. Perhaps it was during that late spring that my doe picked up the liver fluke, or its helpful host, the mud snail.

The mud snail (Limnaea truncatula) acts as a host for completion of the liver fluke’s life cycle, so goats can be infested during times in which they graze a suitable habitat, such as low-lying areas prone to mud or creek overflow. (Hetherington)

The best way to avoid the liver fluke is to keep grazing or browsing goats away from muddy low-lying areas, though they love the trees and forage along the creeks. It is always important to seek veterinarian advice for treatment if a liver fluke problem is suspected. And it is imperative that every goat owner know what is normal behavior and what isn’t for every goat in the herd. In my case, no other goats were affected by the liver fluke problem, and I’m not sure why that was. But the fact that my yearling Nubian acted differently than I expected her to is what likely saved her life in the long run.

Sources:

Leach, Corl A., Aids to Goatkeeping, Ninth edition, 1983. Dairy Goat Journal Publishing Company

Hetherington, Lois, All About Goats, 1994. Farming Press

McCoy, Roxanne, “The Liver Fluke,” Screamin’ Oaks Farm News, June 2008. Tonganoxie, KS





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