Sheep and goat producers should keep Q Fever in mind

Farm Forum

We’re rapidly approaching a busy time of year for area sheep producers – lambing time. This is an exciting but exhausting period when the fruits of the hard work put in the rest of the year become apparent.

Something that can quickly derail a lambing or kidding season is the specter of late-term pregnancy loss. In veterinary circles we refer to these losses as abortions. There are several infectious agents that cause abortions in sheep and goats, including Chlamydiophila, Toxoplasma, and Campylobacter. Oftentimes these infections result in a high percentage of abortions in sheep and goat populations. For some, there are vaccines that can be utilized for prevention; for others there are antibiotic treatments that when applied to the flock, can be beneficial.

Another disease-a very tricky one– that can wreck a lambing or a kidding season is Q Fever. Q Fever is caused by a bacteria called Coxiella burnettii. This germ has been found in many animal species, but only causes significant disease in sheep and goats (and humans, too-more on that later). In sheep and goats, it’s associated with abortion, stillbirths, failure of the cervix to dilate, and weak-born lambs or kids.

One reason Q Fever is tricky is that it’s not as simple as an expectant ewe becoming exposed to the germ and losing her pregnancy. There is strong evidence that a high percentage of flocks and individual animals have been exposed to the organism and harbor it in their system to a certain degree-something we refer to as an “endemic” disease. Yet, clinical problems due to Coxiella remain uncommon. For example, last year at SDSU, there were no Q Fever diagnoses made in the many sheep and goat submissions that came through the diagnostic laboratory.

It seems that when groups experience disease due to Q Fever, there are usually other underlying factors. Overstocking, bringing new animals into a flock, nutritional problems, and weather issues are all factors that stress the animals and can turn an endemic infection into an outbreak.

Once these outbreaks occur, that’s when the human side of Q Fever can enter into the picture. When a ewe or doe loses her pregnancy due to a Q Fever infection, a tremendous number of the bacteria are present in the aborted fetus, in the placenta, and in the uterine fluid. These materials represent a source of potential infection for people.

When people become infected with Q Fever, the most likely outcome is nothing at all. But about 20% of those infected will feel mild flu-like symptoms: body aches, headaches and fever, which resolve on their own. And another 20% will have a more severe illness like pneumonia or liver infection requiring medical treatment. Of those cases, a few (2-5%) will need hospitalization, and 3-5% of the more severe cases will have chronic infections or fatigue which can last months.

So even though it’s a rare diagnosis in people (only 2 cases in South Dakota last year), people working with sheep and goats around birthing time should be aware of the potential hazard of Q Fever. When abortions are noticed in sheep and goats, those people caring for the animals should treat the fetus, placenta, and fluids like they are a potential source for a human disease. They should wear dedicated coveralls, latex gloves and OB sleeves, and dispose of aborted materials promptly in a plastic garbage bag that gets burned or buried. Pregnant women or people with chronic health problems like heart or respiratory diseases should best stay out of the barn during lambing time. Visitors and kids should stay out of the barn when abortions have recently occurred.

Interestingly, many human Q Fever cases have not had distinct animal exposures. However, since we know that an important time of risk is when ewes and does are losing their pregnancies, we should be extra careful at those times. If you have an unexplained illness after working in these conditions, contact your doctor. Our human medical counterparts are becoming more aware of Q Fever and other zoonotic diseases, and prompt diagnosis and treatment might help keep you up and running for this and other lambing seasons to come.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at or at 605-688-5171.