What is sore mouth?

Sore mouth can affect production and performance in sheep and goats.

Sore mouth, also known as contagious ecthyma (CE) or orf, is an acute infectious disease of sheep and goats. Symptoms include the formation of vesicles, pustules and thick scabs on the lips, nostrils, face, eyelids, teats, udders, feet and occasionally inside the mouth. The disease is widespread in the sheep and goat populations and affects all breeds. Lambs and kids are generally more susceptible than adults.

Sore mouth causes reduced gain and feed efficiency in lambs and kids. It is most serious when nursing animals contract the disease. Affected animals refuse to nurse and may die from starvation. The infection may be transmitted to the teats and udder causing pain and abandonment of lambs and kids. Mastitis may also result.

Sore mouth is caused by a virus that is a member of the poxvirus group. This virus can survive for very long periods in scabs from infected animals that drop into the bedding and environment. This may serve as a source of infection many months later. Feeders are a common source of infection for the virus.

About two to three days after exposure to the virus, vesicles, pustules and finally, scabs appear on the lips, nostrils and other affected areas. The scabs last from one to two weeks. Treatment of sore mouth is ineffective and the disease must run its course. Application of broad spectrum antibiotic ointment to affected areas is commonly used, but has little effect on the course of the disease.

Vaccination for sore mouth is a relatively simple procedure. It is performed by scratching a small spot in an area without wool or hair and “painting” the vaccine on this area. The vaccine can also cause the disease in humans, so take care when using it. The disease is commonly introduced by replacement females or breeding animals and by contact with bedding material, trucks, and vehicles contaminated by the sore mouth virus. Michigan State University Extension recommends vaccinating your herd or flock if you have new animals entering your farm. Typically, once an animal has had the virus it is immune for the rest of its life.

CE is transmissible to humans, causing painful sores that may last for several weeks. People handling infected animals should wear rubber or plastic gloves. Thoroughly wash exposed skin areas and then apply a skin antiseptic such as 70 percent isopropyl alcohol. The infective virus enters through small cuts or abrasions. Keep small children away from infected sheep and goats.

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