Contagious Ecthyma (Soremouth)

Carol Raczykowski
Reviewed by Dr. William Holleman

(Reprinted from Pygmy Goat WORLD magazine with permission)

Do you remember as a child your parents telling you not to pick that scab on your knee when you fell off your bike? Ever wonder why? Well, they probably thought that it would either leave a scar or it was full of bacteria. Which explanation is right?

Actually, picking scabs does not necessarily cause scarring. Scabs are an accumulation of cellular debris and fluids exuded from a wound. This material dries and forms a scab. In the old days, it was thought that scabs should be left on to protect the wound. But, we know today that scabs are not good. They are a source of bacteria and can actually hold in the infection. I guess to a certain degree they can be protective but, more often than not, veterinarians will choose to remove scabs - NOT by picking them but by using an agent like Dermaclens.

Dermaclens chemically eats up the scab and stimulates growth in the tissue underneath. If a scab was picked off prematurely it could tear some of the tissue underneath and expose it to damage but chances are the wound was going to leave a scar anyway.

Scabs are full of bacteria. In the case of soremouth, they are a major source of infection and reinfection. The scabs that form on a goat's lips and muzzle carry disease from one goat to another and become the main source of infection. These scabs can also appear on other parts of the goats, including the face, ears, coronary band, scrotum, teats or vulva. It is not uncommon for an infected nursing kid to spread disease to the mother's udder. Once this happens, the health of the teat sphincter may be compromised and predispose the nursing mother to bacterial mastitis.

So enough talk of scabs. What exactly is soremouth? It is a zoonotic (contagious to humans) disease, also known as Contagious Ecthyma, Contagious Pustular Dermatitis, and Scabby Mouth. It is very contagious, as the names intimate, and can be spread from goats to sheep and vice versa. The condition in humans is called Orf. The virus usually enters the goat's skin through an abrasion. Once infected, there is initial swelling and pustules on the mouth and lips (especially in the corners) become scabby and crusty. These scabs contain infectious bacteria; they fall off and become the prime mode of transmission. Soremouth can also be spread by direct contact with infected animals, as well as through contaminated inanimate objects such as feeders, fences and the ground. Soremouth can easily spread at shows where there have been infected animals, especially since soremouth can live in the scabs and on wooden pens and feeders for several years.

The disease runs from 1 to 4 weeks in each animal and, as you can imagine, it can be quite painful to the goat. The disease is not usually fatal, but you can expect a loss of productivity. Soremouth affects all ages and may be especially bothersome to nursing kids. The morbidity in kids is 100% and mortality can be as high as 20%, mostly due to starvation and secondary infections that take advantage of the animal's weakened state.

There is no treatment for the disease and it usually just runs its course. There is a vaccine available for soremouth but if your herd has never been afflicted it is not a good idea to it. The vaccine can infect a clean herd. However, if your herd has had it, the vaccine can reduce the effects of the disease. The vaccine is given by scratching the skin, usually inside the thigh or under the tail, with a special applicator dipped in the vaccine (which is basically ground up infected scabs). Scabs appearing at the vaccination site within 1-3 days indicate a "take."

Any type of treatment, such as applying salve to scabs, needs to be weighed against the danger of human infection. Orf creates very painful sores in people that take a long time to heal. If you apply topical treatments to keep the scabs pliable, always wear gloves and be fastidious about cleansing. It is thought that applying salve will help ease the pain as the sores are painful and can crack, making it even more painful. [Editor's comment: Anecdotal reports say that rubbing injectable vitamin B12 onto soremouth lesions dries up open sores in three days, compared to 2-3 weeks for untreated animals. Again, wear gloves if you try this.]

As with any disease, isolate the affected goats. Do not take any animals off the premises during the time of infection. Do not show or sell animals due to the contagious nature of soremouth. Do not bring in outside animals for breeding or other purposes. Even when the outbreak is over, you must remember the contagious scabs. Your conscientious efforts could save a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering to many goats in the future.


Related Reading

Contagious Ecthyma - Merck Veterinary Manual
Controlling Soremouth in Meat Goats
Contagious Ecthyma Virulence Factors and Vaccine Failure

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