If your goats are biting and scratching, suspect lice. The easiest place to spot goat lice is just behind the foreleg, directly on the skin. Goat lice are very common in winter months, and finding them does not mean you are a bad herdsman. If you don’t see them, it doesn’t mean they are not there.
Goats are susceptible to many parasitic conditions — worms, mites, and lice — because parasites are part of the environment. It may be next to impossible to eliminate parasites, but with good management practices, we can mitigate their effects on herd health. Cold climates and the associated confined areas are ideal conditions for lice infestation.
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If the thought or sight of goat lice makes your skin crawl, rest assured: lice are species specific. Goat lice only infest goats. You may get one on you, but you will not get them, nor will your house, or your dog. Lice are spread by contact from goat to goat and cannot live long apart from a goat. They only reproduce on goats. It is possible to have mechanical transmission — meaning a louse or nit (a lice egg) is transferred from one goat to another from a collar, blanket, or other object. In heavy infestations, some producers may strip their barns suspecting the presence of lice or nits in the goat bedding. While it is possible to transfer goat lice through bedding, it isn’t necessary to strip your goat shelter, as the treatment protocol addresses the full life cycle on the goat, including any lice that may attach from goat bedding during the course of treatment.
How do I know if my goat has lice?
Lice may initially look like dirt under the hair against the skin, but if you watch for a moment, they move. They are very similar to fleas. You might also notice eggs — or nits — attached to the hair follicles. Sometimes nits are the only indication of an infestation.
There are two types of goat lice: biting and sucking. Unlike mites, lice are visible without the use of a microscope. Since biting lice feed on hair and skin, they have a wider head to accommodate a chewing apparatus. This wider head may not be apparent without a microscope or magnifying glass, but their bodies tend to be lighter in color, ranging from grey to tan. Sucking lice have narrow heads and pierce the skin to feed on blood. As a result, their blood-filled bodies appear darker, and there is often evidence on the goat’s skin. Goats infested with lice will have dull coats, excessive biting, scratching, rubbing, and grooming behavior, and may have patches of missing or thinning hair as a result. Goats infested with sucking lice may also have scabby, bleeding areas that can develop bacterial infections if not treated.
How do you treat goat lice?
There are two types of chemical treatments for goat lice: topical and systemic. Treatment depends on the type of lice present. Biting lice can be controlled with a topical treatment (a liquid or powder applied directly to the skin) while sucking lice may be controlled topically but usually require a systemic treatment (oral or injected). Almost all treatments used to control goat lice are “off-label,” meaning that the medication is not specifically labelled or approved for goats, nor is a dosage given on the package. For that reason, we cannot recommend treatment. A veterinarian must be consulted to advise on the off-label use of medication. You may also find an experienced herdsman or goat mentor who can share their parasite management practices with you. As with all medication, care must be taken for dairy and meat animals to respect withdrawal times and not harvest meat or milk while the medicine is still present in the system. For pregnant and very young animals, some medications may not be safe to use. Because of the drug-resistance of parasites in goats, is important to use a chemical targeted at the specific parasite. While a chemical dewormer may be effective, if the lice can be eliminated topically by using an insecticide, it is preferable.
Brushing and using a nit comb can be helpful in reducing the severity of the infestation, but may not be effective in eliminating the lice.
When treating goats for lice, it is imperative to consider the 30-day life cycle of the parasite. Lice hatch, reproduce, lay eggs (nits), and die. The nits hatch somewhere between nine and 12 days. For this reason, two treatments are required, ideally two weeks apart, to eliminate the active lice and then eliminate the lice that hatch from the nits before they are able to mature and deposit more nits.
There are herd management practices that can reduce the severity and frequency of infestation. Many producers apply insecticides to their herds in late fall preventatively, before a full infestation occurs. Strong, healthy goats on high-energy diets tend to be less susceptible to parasites. Stressed animals are always the first to be compromised. Since lice are spread by contact, minimizing overcrowding can reduce the transmission from goat to goat. When introducing new goats to a herd, use strict quarantine protocol. Test, evaluate, assess, and treat any new animals for a minimum of 30 days before introducing them to a herd.
How do goat lice affect goat health?
Lice are a stressor. They itch and cause discomfort and anxiety. The distraction can cause a goat to go off feed or expend excessive calories resulting in weight loss. Weight loss and disinterest in feed during winter months can make it difficult for a goat to maintain warmth. Dairy goats infected with lice show a drop in milk production, and some producers report as much as a 25 percent loss. Lice damages the hair quality of mohair goat breeds, directly affecting fiber value. In the case of sucking lice, the greatest risk to goats is anemia, which can be life-threatening. Bites from sucking lice can also develop bacterial infections.
Are there other conditions that appear similar to lice?
Mites, goat worms, and nutritional deficiencies can also present as dull coats, bare patches, and an unthrifty appearance. Only goat lice are externally visible to the eye. Mites are confirmed by microscopic examination of a skin scraping. The treatment of mites is similar to the treatment for sucking lice, however, and addresses both possibilities. Worms are detected by microscopic examination of feces. The type of worm detected determines the course of treatment, which can be the same drug used for mites and biting lice. Dosage and frequency vary depending on the parasite being targeted.
You may also need to rule out a nutritional deficiency if you notice bare patches and dull coats without evidence of parasites. Copper is a common deficiency and frequently indicated by black coats turning rusty, or “fish tail” — the baring of the tip of the tail. Zinc deficiency is indicted by loss of hair on the bridge of the nose, and other areas of the body, as well as a stiff gait depending on the severity.
Dry skin will also cause scratching, rubbing, and bare patches. Dandruff commonly occurs as goats shed their winter coats. If there are no other signs of parasites, simply provide places for goats to rub to rid themselves of their undercoats. Brushing will speed the shedding process.
Do not be discouraged. Goat lice are not here to stay — they are usually seasonal — most active in late winter and early spring and tend to disappear when the sun and warm weather return. Despite this, they should not be left untreated, as they can significantly impact goat health during a time of the year when goats are most vulnerable.
Karen and her husband Dale own Kopf Canyon Ranch in Moscow, Idaho. They enjoy “goating” together and helping others goat. They raise Kikos primarily, but are experimenting with crosses for their new favorite goating experience: pack goats! You can learn more about them at Kopf Canyon Ranch on Facebook or www.kikogoats.org.