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A Nightmare That Could Have Been Prevented

By Elaine Puckett

Dairy goats can get tetanus—a devastating disease which often results in death. One of our doelings got it last year, but she survived and we tell her story with the hopes it will prevent other dairy goat breeders from making the same little mistakes we did. I also hope the story of our little Alpine doe, Tenacity, will give others battling goat diseases the information needed for success in conquering disaster. A good veterinarian is the key to survival for many cases like ours, but some real-life information on dealing with tetanus is sure to inspire someone, somewhere, to improve or enhance their own goat management skills.

I will tell the end of our story first. At Puckett’s Alpines near Council Grove, Kansas, we raise top quality, heavy milking American Alpines. Last year we had a little doeling who earned the name Tenacity, after she survived a difficult battle with a preventable disease—tetanus. She was called only Jessie’s Doeling when we first realized she had a problem and took her to a veterinarian. I made some management mistakes but unfortunately I fear they are not so different from the way many of us might manage our goats. These mistakes were in the form of several small steps taken in the wrong direction and put together in the wrong order for an almost devastating result.

Tenacity has fully recovered from her bout with tetanus.

Step one: Horses and cattle and perhaps other animals carry tetanus in their digestive tracts. They contaminate the ground with the tetanus causing bacteria. Many dairy goat breeders often also keep other animals in or near their goat yards. This seemingly innocent practice increases the odds of having tetanus in the soil. In my case, my goats were kept in a pen that was down the hill from the neighbor’s horses. These were working horses sometimes used in a feedlot situation. More than likely they shed bacteria in manure, which entered our yard through run-off after heavy rains. I have been a goat breeder on the same farm for almost 30 years and never before had a problem with tetanus. But, like I said earlier, there were a few other steps that fell into place, changing the whole situation for our one unlucky little goat.

Step two: The tetanus bacteria must enter the body. This bacterium grows best in a wound sealed over without air, anaerobic. Puncture wounds are the right anaerobic environment, so are scabbed over wounds. In Tenacity’s case she was disbudded a little late. I don’t write down when we disbud each kid so I can’t tell an exact date. Looking back I do remember her knocking off one of the horn scabs quite early. When this happens it is usually accomplished by scratching at the horn scab with a hind foot. It bled some. However Tenacity was a dam raised kid and not tame. I tried to catch her to apply an antiseptic. She was not willing and I decided the wound would bleed worse being chased about than if I just left her alone. Next morning there was no bleeding and the wound had sealed over.

Step three: The animal must be susceptible to the germ. That is not having enough immunity so that the body does not have the ability to fight off the bacterial invasion. Immunity to tetanus is achieved by routine immunization both in animals and people. Our routine, one I feel is generally accepted practice in most dairy goat herds, was to vaccinate the pregnant doe four-to-six weeks before her due date. If this is done, then vaccinate the kids at six to eight weeks of age, again in four weeks, and annually thereafter. Further reading has uncovered the possibility that the antibody protection from colostrum may diminish by three to four weeks. This source recommends vaccinating the doe three to four weeks pre kidding. Then vaccinate kids at three-to-four weeks and again six-to-eight weeks later.

My record keeping again failed me. I feel Jessie was given her tetanus and enterotoxaemia immunization during that four-to-six week period before she kidded, but I cannot find it written down. However Jessie did not go dry, she was milked through her pregnancy. Therefore she had no colostrum. Knowing this I had frozen colostrum and fed each of the kids approximately eight ounces soon after birth. They were then left to nurse their dam. I have since visited with people about human babies and have been told that frozen colostrum may have lost much of its immunity giving properties during the freezing. Fresh colostrum is much preferred. I suspect the same is true of animal colostrum.

So there it is. Tetanus can strike if: 1) the germ is present; 2) the germ has a port of entry; and 3) the host has a poor immune system. I guess our little Tenacity struck out on all three steps and soon she was in a fight for her life.

Whenever I have a question about dairy goat management, I turn to the book Goat Medicine by Mary C. Smith and David M. Sherman as my medical reference. This is where I first began frantically looking for clues as to what could be wrong, when I first discovered Tenacity has a problem one evening when I went to do chores. She was on a slope and appeared to be tangles in some tree roots. She was crying out for help. When I went to her she was not tangled but could not get up and had slid until the roots had stopped her. When I picked her up she was stiff and when I set her on her feet she could stand and walk, but not run away from me. I noted that her dam, Jessie had not been nursed. Jessie’s twins, Tenacity and Sister, each very definitely had staked out their own teat and didn’t vary where they nursed. Tenacity had not nursed. Sister was fine.

I hurried through chores even though it was milk test evening. Then off to the veterinarian we went, Tenacity in my arms. It was a 45-minute drive to a veterinarian kind enough to stay open late just for us. By the time we arrived I knew it was a neurological problem and suspected it was due to the disbudding or subsequent injury to the scab. Tetanus was on my mind.

The veterinarian did a neurologic exam. She examined the horn area. Nothing appeared unusual about the scab, but the whole side of Tenacity’s head was swollen. There was no wound to clean. We learned the incubation period for tetanus is usually 10-20 days. It can take as little as four days or as long as several months. If a wound is still present the veterinarian can inject the wound with tetanus antitoxin to reduce the release of pre-existing toxins into the blood stream. The wound can then be cleaned of any dead tissue and flushed with hydrogen peroxide. Once clean the wound is filled with penicillin. Our veterinarian prescribed large doses of penicillin given SQ and gave tetanus antitoxin. Off to home again, the prognosis was not good. Tenacity relaxed a little on the ride home. But each time we hit a bump, a loud noise, or I moved she stiffened up again. This is called hyperesthesia, the increased sensitivity to stimulation particularly to touch.

Once home I began to read. What was I up against and how could I care for this baby? She was just five weeks old. The name tetanus or tetany refers to a continuous tonic muscular spasm. It starts with a stiff gait and a wide base or sawhorse stance. The victim is reluctant to move and has difficulty opening its mouth. Bloat is often present. Response to a sudden loud noise is very similar to that of a fainting goat. The tetanus-affected goat does not recover from the rigidity as the fainting goat does. Hyperflexia follows with a recumbent rigid extension of all limbs and the back arched. Convulsions and death follow.

The tetanus bacterium is usually localized at the wound infection. The bacteria produce a neurotoxin that enters the blood stream. By the time the toxin produces signs and symptoms it cannot be neutralized. The toxin gradually degrades relieving symptoms. The goal of treatment is to inhibit additional toxin production, neutralize existing unbound toxin, and lessen the effects of bound toxin. Penicillin is the drug of choice to kill the bacteria ending the toxin production. Neutralization of existing unbound toxin is accomplished by injecting antitoxin. In a veterinarian hospital situation, the antitoxin could be given intravenously. The use of anticonvulsants, tranquilizers, and muscle relaxants would also be possible as indicated. Intravenous fluids and tube feedings would be used. Enemas or tubes to relieve the bloat might be necessary.

Tenacity’s treatment was conservative. She was not hospitalized. Supportive treatment included dark quiet surroundings and frequent position changes. When Tenacity came home I attempted to feed her a bottle. She either would not take milk from a bottle. The weather was warm and we decided to keep Tenacity in the barn in familiar surroundings. She was placed in a large pet carrier, one large enough to lie down in her extended position. An overstuffed toy best describes how incapacitated the little goat was. I could stand her up and she stayed there in the wide square stance. I could lay her down and she stayed there—legs out straight. The upper legs did relax enough to rest on the ground but were held straight at the knees.

Next morning I again attempted to bottle feed the little goat. Still no luck. I put Jessie on the milk stand and braced the little goat’s butt on the headstand and watched as she tried to nurse but could not turn her head or open her mouth enough to get on the teat. I squashed the teat flat and brought it to her mouth. She could suckle and swallow. Hooray! Four times a day I assisted Tenacity to nurse. I alternated between standing her up and laying her down. I changed her position every two hours when possible. She would stand until I laid her down or she fell down. When I laid Tenacity down I placed her on a pile of hay with her head uphill. I placed a towel under her head to prevent injury to her eyes. At night she had to lie all night on her side in the pet carrier. I alternated sides. I elevated the head end of the carrier. I had learned that death usually came from respiratory failure. So I did all I could to prevent this.

Day two showed no improvement, a little worse in fact. I returned to the local veterinarian for more antitoxin. They recommended large doses once a day for three days. I gave slightly smaller doses twice a day for five days. I also gave the penicillin twice a day at the prescribed dose. Tenacity was a pincushion, even though I rotated sites I know she hurt all over. Her condition leveled out and for four days there was no change. On day six she was a little better. Day seven her legs began to bend a little again. She actually was able to get herself to standing from the hay pile on day eight. It was daily improvement from there. Tenacity spent two weeks in the barn alleyway by day and in a pet carrier in the alley by night. Her mental capacity always seemed intact. She was an alert normal lively baby goat caught in a body that would not move. By the end of week two she could get up and lay down by herself. Her legs bent enough to assume an almost normal upright position when lying down. She was placed back in with the herd when she could again nurse on her own. At the end of a month she was running and jumping with the others.

In no time at all, we witnessed her doing the "I’m happy to be alive," baby goat dance. We were very happy she was alive too. Tenacity earned her name. She held tenaciously to life even when the going was really tough, and I learned to pay more attention to the management techniques that have always worked in the past. Tenacity’s story was one of coincidence and bad luck, but I still believe it could have been prevented. I am just glad she survived and we all learned our lessons.

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