Lice on goats is a common issue for farmers. It only becomes a problem if the animals are infested with lice. Credit: Aislinn Sarnacki / BDN

There is no reason to panic if you discover lice on your goats.

Finding them on your goats can come as a bit of a surprise to new goat owners, but according to those experienced in keeping goats, dealing with lice — like any other parasite — is just another part of responsable goat husbandry.

Here’s what you need to know about lice and your goats.

What are goat lice

Lice are ectoparasites, which means they live on the outside of their hosts, according to Dr. Carolyn Hurwitz, assistant state veterinarian with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Like all lice, goat lice are host specific and most can only survive on goats, though species can live on sheep.

“All species of livestock, birds, pets and humans have their own ‘brand’ of lice,” Hurwitz said. “And for each there are sucking and chewing lice which are named for how they make their living.”

So be assured: goat lice do not like humans. While you may see a goat louse crawling on your skin, it won’t stick around for long.

How goat lice feed is by using their narrow heads and harp teeth to piece and burrow beneath the skin of the goat and suck its blood. Chewing lice eat bits of skin, sweat and hair. In both cases the feeding behavior causes a great deal of irritation and discomfort for the goat.

How to tell if your goats have lice

At first glance, lice on your goats may look like dirt under their hair and next to the skin. But unlike dirt, if you look long enough there will be movement as the lice move around feeding on your goat.

Goat lice are small — typically around .08-inches long. You may also notice lice eggs — called nits — on individual goat hairs.

If your goats are infested with lice their coats may be dull and have patches of missing or thinning hair due to their incessant rubbing or scratching. If they are infested with sucking lice you may notice scabby or bleeding areas.

“It’s a good idea to look for lice in the spring because that’s definitely when you see them,” according to Kassie Dwyer of the Maine Dairy Goat Association. “The best place to look for them is on the back of the goat’s front legs — part the hair and look down toward the skin and if there’s an infestation, you will see them.”

How do goats get lice?

Goat lice are most often spread by contact from goat to goat. But if your goat happens to come into contact with a blanket, collar or any other object that has a healthy louse or nit on it, the parasite can easily move on to the goat.

“Lice can travel,” Dwyer said. “So if you are visiting somewhere that happens to have goat lice and you happen to get some on you, you can carry them back to your goats.”

They can also be brought into your herd by a new goat that is carrying lice, if you take your goat to breed on another farm where there are lice or if you show your goats and they come into contact with another goat with lice.

Health issues

Simply seeing a couple of lice on a goat is actually somewhat normal when it comes to livestock, according to Hurwitz, and is no reason to panic.

“Livestock will often have some degree of lice on them and the animals have natural abilities to deal with the parasite,” Hurwitz said. “When they shed or molt that helps them get rid of an ectoparasite and they will lick themselves to remove them.”

But it’s important to keep an eye on the animals.

“If you notice one is losing fur, is itchy or rubbing themselves against the fence or barn, that means the scales have tipped,” she said. “Then it’s appropriate to intervene.”

A lice infestation can have real health impacts on your goats. The constant itching due to a lice infestation will make your goats very uncomfortable. It can get so bad that the goat will stop eating and spend all its time and energy looking for ways to scratch or rub itself. In dairy goats, there can be a significant drop in milk production.

Excessive itching and rubbing can create sores that can get infected. Goats that are infested with blood sucking lice, they can become anemic which is life threatening.

Treating a lice infestation

Hurwitz recommends a multi-pronged attack on the lice. She said there are numerous topical chemical treatments commercially available. But the key is knowing what you are getting and how to use it.

“The treatment is going to depend on the animal,” Hurwitz said. “If you are using a chemical pour-on or topical product make sure you read the instructions and make sure it is approved for that particular species, that you use the correct dose and apply it the way it is intended.”

Even if not every member of your goat herd is infested with lice, you should treat them all.

“The other prong is not to ignore the role of environmental sanitation,” Hurwitz said. “Having a clean, dry environment will promote the animal to have healthy skin that enables it to fight off an infestation.”

Good nutrition is also key as the healthier your goat, the better equipped it is to deal with lice.

It’s not the end of the world

If you do discover lice on your animals is not necessarily a poor reflection on your goat keeping skills. In fact, Dwyer said if you have goats the lice are probably already there.

“If you see lice jumping off your goats it does not mean your herd is dirty,” she said. “It’s something everyone deals with and yes it’s creepy crawly and disgusting, but it is just part of the regular animal husbandry.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.