Diseases and health problems in sheep and goats, including foot and mouth disease (FMD), scrapie and lead poisoning
As a sheep or goat farmer, it’s essential that you take the necessary steps to protect the health of your livestock. Whilst maintaining good health is important to ensure acceptable standards of animal welfare, such measures will also maximise the productivity of your flock or herd.
This guide has information about the main diseases affecting sheep and goats, including notifiable diseases, which must be reported. It covers general disease prevention and legal controls to prevent specific risks, such as the spread of foot and mouth disease (FMD), as well as covering your legal responsibilities relating to hormonal treatments, the use of antibiotics and keeping medicinal records.
For specific advice relating to the animal welfare aspects of good flock or herd management, see the related guide on sheep and goat welfare.
Critical illnesses of sheep and goats
Looking after your animals properly and monitoring them regularly for signs of illness are the best ways of preventing disease, and of controlling its spread if there is an outbreak.
For contact details of your local Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) office use the postcode search tool on the AHVLA website.
Sheep and goats are vulnerable to several notifiable diseases including:
- brucellosis (Brucella melitensis)
- goat pox
Lead poisoning and exposure to lead can also damage sheep and goats.
Foot and mouth disease
FMD is an infectious disease affecting cloven-hoofed animals - including sheep and goats.
FMD signs in sheep and goats include the following:
- sudden, severe lameness
- stiff-legged walking
- off-colour appearance
- tendency to lie down
- unwillingness to rise and a reluctance to move when made to stand
- increased lamb mortality or abortions
- ewes unwilling to let lambs suckle
- sores and blisters on the feet, in the mouth or on the tongue - mouth symptoms can be hard to notice
Outbreaks of FMD are contained by the compulsory slaughter of infected animals.
If you suspect your animal has scrapie, you must report it to your local AHVLA Office. It is a fatal brain disease - classified as a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) - and is a significant cause of death in sheep and goats.
Most sheep and goats with scrapie show a general change in temperament or behaviour weeks before any specific clinical signs develop. If you notice this kind of change, you should contact the duty vet at your local AHVLA Office.
Signs of scrapie include:
- skin irritation
- behavioural changes - eg excitability, nervousness, aggression or depression
- changes in posture and gait - eg head trembling, unusual high-stepping trot, severe inco-ordination, stumbling, weak hind legs or the inability to stand
- weight loss
These signs are not a definite indication of scrapie. The only way to diagnose scrapie is to test tissues taken from the animal’s brain after its death. If the vet examines the animal and confirms the suspicion of scrapie, the animal will be humanely slaughtered by lethal injection.
If scrapie is confirmed in your sheep or goats, your holding will be registered with the National Scrapie Plan Compulsory Scrapie Flocks Scheme. An AHVLA vet will then visit your holding to assess your case in consultation with you and decide what to do with your flock. If you do not agree with the decision made, you can appeal it within 21 days.
Disease prevention and control for sheep and goats
Monitoring your livestock and following good farming practices are the best ways to reduce the risk of disease among your sheep or goats. You can find out more in the guide on the basics of controlling disease.
Buying, registering and moving sheep and goats
There are rules in place which you must follow for registering sheep or goats, and when moving them. These procedures make it easier to trace and identify infected animals in the event of a disease outbreak. For more information, see the guide on sheep and goats identification, registration and movement.
When restocking your flock or herd, you should:
- consult your vet to help you develop a plan for evaluating prospective purchases
- buy health scheme animals - whenever possible - that have been certified as free of specific diseases
- recognise the risks in buying older animals
Biosecurity and hygiene
Good biosecurity is a vital part of keeping disease away from your animals. This will also protect the health of your workers and any members of the public who may visit your farm.
Your general biosecurity measures should include:
- restricting and controlling movements of people, vehicles and equipment into areas where your sheep or goats are kept
- cleaning and disinfecting equipment, vehicles, protective clothing and footwear before and after contact with farm animals
The presence of a disease may not always be apparent - particularly in the early stages - so the measures above need to be part of your routine.
Read more about biosecurity, including special rules for agricultural markets and shows, in the guide on disease prevention.
Health and welfare programmes
You should seek veterinary and technical advice to create a written health and welfare programme for your sheep or goats. This should be reviewed and updated annually. As a minimum, it should include your:
- vaccination policy and timing
- parasite control procedures - internal and external
Drugs are a useful tool for preventing disease in sheep and goats, but you must use these responsibly and record all usage. One good way to improve health planning is to benchmark your sheep health and business practices against other local farmers.
As part of its disease prevention strategy, Defra constantly collects information about incidences of disease in animals. This monitoring enables any important or unusual outbreaks to be detected quickly - so that appropriate action can be taken.
Disposal of fallen stock
‘Fallen stock’ is any animal that has died of natural causes or disease on a farm or that has been killed on a farm for reasons other than for human consumption.
You are not permitted to bury or burn fallen stock on farms due to the risk of spreading disease through residues in the soil, groundwater or air pollution. This ban also covers animal by-products (ABPs), including afterbirth and stillborn animals.
The only exceptions to this ban are:
- in remote areas - parts of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, Bardsey Island and Caldy Island in Wales, and the Scilly Isles, and Lundy Island
- during outbreaks of notifiable disease - if there is a lack of capacity at rendering plants and incinerators, or if transporting carcasses would spread disease
All fallen farm animals - including stillborn animals - must be collected by an approved transporter and taken for disposal or treatment to an approved:
- hunt kennel
- maggot farm
Fallen stock must be collected, identified and transported without ‘undue delay’. This means as soon as is reasonably practical under the circumstances (usually within 48hrs of death).
ABPs must be transported in covered leak-proof containers/vehicles and be accompanied by a commercial document. For more information, see the guide on dealing with animal by-products.
National Fallen Stock Scheme
You can dispose of fallen stock privately at an approved destination, or you can make arrangements through the National Fallen Stock Company (NFSCo). As a farmer, you can register with the scheme for the collection and disposal of your fallen stock. Members receive a list of the approved collectors operating in their area and the prices that they charge. Members can contact a registered collector of their choice whenever they have fallen stock. You can find information on fallen stock on the NFSCo website.
If you want to make your own arrangements, your local AHVLA Office will provide a list of approved knackers, hunt kennels, maggot farms, incinerators or renderers.
If you want to burn animal carcasses in your own on-farm incinerator, your incinerator must comply with ABP controls and environmental permitting requirements. It must also be approved by the AHVLA.
For more information on environmental permits for incinerators, see the guide on burning waste - your environmental responsibilities.
You can also find out which ABPs can be incinerated in the guide on dealing with animal by-products.
For contact details of your local AHVLA Office use the postcode search tool on the AHVLA website.
You can find approved premises for TSE testing on the AHVLA website.
Animal carcasses or parts of animal carcasses suspected or confirmed as infected by a TSE are category 1 ABPs - the highest risk category. They must be disposed of by incineration, or processing (rendering) followed by incineration. You can find out about destroying TSE-infected carcasses and specified risk material in the guide on keeping livestock healthy - disease controls, prevention, notification and restrictions.
For more information on dealing with disposal and recording, see the guide on fallen stock.
Sheep and goat health and cross compliance
Cross compliance requirements apply to you if you receive direct payments under Common Agricultural Policy support schemes or if you receive payments under certain Rural Development schemes. To receive your full subsidy payment you must comply with the Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs) and standards of good agricultural and environmental condition requirements that apply to your business.
If you don’t carry out your SMR obligations, you may face enforcement action and even prosecution.
A number of SMRs apply to sheep and goat health.
SMR 10 - Restrictions on the use of substances having hormonal or thyrostatic action and beta-agonists
The aim of SMR 10 is to prohibit the illegal use in stock farming of substances that have a hormonal or thyrostatic action and beta-agonists, and to prevent the residues that these substances leave in meat and other foodstuffs from entering the human or animal food chain.
SMRs 13, 14 and 15 for the prevention and control of animal disease
The aim of SMRs 13, 14 and 15 is to minimise the risk posed to human and animal health by FMD, bluetongue anda other animal diseases. They will apply to you if you keep sheep and goats. Complying with SMRs 13, 14 and 15 means you must notify the Divisional Veterinary Manager of your AHVLA immediately if you know or suspect that a sheep or goat or carcass in your possession, or under your charge, is infected with:
- peste des petits ruminants
- epizootic haemorrhagic virus disease of deer
- sheep and goat pox (capripox)
- African swine fever
- Rift Valley fever
For more information, see the guide on disease notification and restrictions.
For contact details of your local AHVLA office use the postcode search tool on the AHVLA website.
Protecting your sheep and goats from lead poisoning on farms
Lead poisoning on your farm can cost you money and kill your sheep and goats.
Accumulation of lead beyond legal limits renders meat, offal and milk unsafe and illegal to enter the food chain. Lead poisoning can also result in stunted animal growth, animal deaths, increased birth defects and infertility, decreased productivity, loss of market value and disposal costs for dead animals and vet fees.
Causes of lead poisoning on farms
Lead poisoning is often reported more in sheep than in goats. Both animals have a similar susceptibility, but sheep are browsing animals and tend not to ingest much soil. The most frequent cause of lead poisoning in sheep is ingestion of high lead soils. High lead soils arise from historic mining and smelting activities which date back up to two millennia or land erosion, especially by water courses or occasionally landslips.
There are several other sources of lead on farms that could be poisonous to sheep and goats. These include:
- flaking high lead paint
- vehicle and electric fence batteries - eg battery remains accidentally mixed with animal feed, or batteries fly-tipped on farm land
- ash from fires in which lead materials were burned such as painted woodwork, leaded building materials, putty, wiring
- lead shot from shooting which can be eaten with soil uptake and can also contaminate certain crops, especially maize and end up in silage
Withdrawal periods and offal removal following poisoning
A 16-week withdrawal period before slaughter is usually sufficient but for lead which is retained in the stomach, this can extend for several years. Some animals may show no signs of poisoning but have lead residues in their milk, offal and meat. Offal tends to have higher levels of lead for longer periods than meat or milk.
Animals and/or their produce may need to be tested to investigate whether lead residues are present and also to monitor whether a withdrawal period has been adequate or whether offal should be removed after slaughter.
How to avoid lead contamination on your farm
There are several steps you can take to protect your sheep and goats and the human food chain from lead contamination. You should:
- check your fields and barns for vehicle batteries, building materials, flaking lead paint, putty, lead flashing
- remove or fence off fly tipped material
- prevent access to burnt out cars and old machinery that might contain lead
- prevent access to bonfire ash
- use mains water or tested borehole water rather than natural run-off water from high lead soils
On farms with high lead soils, you should:
- keep soil consumption as low as possible
- avoid waterlogged land and poached land for grazing
- avoid overgrazing
- fence off bare areas of soil
- calibrate cutters when making silage to minimise soil uptake
- flatten any molehills prior to cutting grass for silage
- provide salt licks and mineral supplements if necessary
What to do if you suspect lead poisoning in your sheep and goats
If you suspect some of your stock is contaminated with lead, you must:
- remove them from the affected area - pasture, pen or yard - immediately
- consult your vet
- confirm the cause of disease and if it is lead poisoning then investigate the source
Testing for lead in sheep and goats
Advice and testing for lead in cattle, produce or soil is available via your vet and from your regional Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) Office.
AHVLA can be contacted via the Laboratory Services Department on Tel 01932 357 335.
Sheep and goat feed
Feed contaminants such as lead or antimicrobial residues - or biological agents such as botulism - may cause disease in sheep or goats. This can make their produce unsuitable for human consumption.
You must ensure you do not give unsafe feed to food-producing animals. See the guide on farmed animal food and feed law.
Animal by-products as foodstuffs
You can use some former foodstuffs - food previously intended for human consumption - as livestock feed, subject to the animal by-products regulations.
You must not feed meat, fish and most other products of animal origin to ruminants, pigs or poultry, or allow them access to such material.
For more information about animal by-products and foodstuffs that can be fed to your livestock, see the guide on dealing with animal by-products.
For more information, you can download the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra’s) guidance on the use of former foodstuffs for animal feed from the Agricultural Document Library (ADLib) website (PDF, 68KB).
Hormonal treatments and antibiotics for sheep and goats
Due to concerns about the potential risk to humans, the use of hormonal growth promoters for livestock is banned in the UK. Antibiotic growth-promoting feed additives have also been phased out - because of concerns about the potential spread of antibiotic resistance.
As a result, if you keep farmed animals there are restrictions on the use of treatments that:
- act as beta-agonists
- have hormonal actions
- reduce production of thyroid hormones
You must prevent meat containing these substances from entering the human - or animal - food chain.
Restricted treatments include:
- nalidixic acid
- fusidic acid
Restricted antibiotic substances include:
You must not:
- give food-producing animals restricted substances - unless in line with permitted exceptions
- use substances containing oestradiol 17ß or its ester-like derivatives
- use substances containing hormones or with thyroid hormone reducing actions - unless prescribed by a vet
- use substances that contain beta-agonists to slow labour in cows when calving
- have food-producing animals on your farm that have been given any restricted substance - unless in line with permitted exceptions
- send animals that have been given any restricted substances to slaughter - unless in line with permitted exceptions
- sell meat or any other animal product that has been given a restricted substance - unless in line with permitted exceptions
- obey the relevant withdrawal period if your food-producing animals are given a restricted substance
- keep veterinary records relating to the medicinal use of any restricted substances on your animals
Sheep and goat monitoring and record-keeping
In taking responsibility for a flock of sheep or herd of goats, you must have the skills needed to safeguard the animals’ health and welfare. This includes being familiar with the welfare code for that species. For stock management advice relating to welfare, see the guide on sheep and goat welfare.
You should inspect your sheep or goats regularly for signs of disease. This will help to maximise the health and productivity of your flock or herd.
You should know signs of ill health to look for and call in expert veterinary assistance where necessary.
Pasture management should form an integral part of your disease control - especially in the case of internal parasites and foot rot, where total reliance on drugs is best avoided.
Regular inspection of your herd is essential to maintain good health. You should be familiar with the normal behaviour of sheep and goats and be alert for any signs of illness or distress - calling in expert veterinary assistance where necessary.
Signs of good health in sheep include:
- free movement
- active feeding and ruminations
Stay alert for any signs of illness or distress. Signs of ill health in sheep include:
- abscesses, wounds or injuries
- abnormal posture or behaviour
- scouring (diarrhoea)
- absence of cudding
- persistent coughing or panting
- scratching or frequent rubbing
- rapid loss of body condition
- excessive wool loss
- a sudden drop in milk yield
- being apart from the flock
Signs of good health in goats include:
- good appetite
- good coat condition
- firm round droppings
Signs of ill health in goats include:
- poor appetite
- abscesses, wounds or injuries
- poor coat condition
Goats are particularly susceptible to parasitic infections of the skin - eg lice and mange - and foot rot.
You must keep records of treatment given to animals, and of animal mortality, covering at least three years. Stock keepers must also keep full records of all medicines used, including:
- where the medicines were bought
- the date the animals were treated
- the type and quantity of medicine used
- which animals were treated
You may only use authorised veterinary medicinal products, and you must record the name and address of the supplier. Although not required, it is also useful to record specific cases and treatment of disorders.
For more information, see the guide on managing livestock veterinary medicines.
Environment Agency Helpline
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National Scrapie Plan Helpline
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Food Standards Agency Helpline
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Veterinary Medicines Directorate Helpline
01932 336 911
Cross Compliance Helpline
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