Friday, June 7, 2019

Q fever: What sheep and goat owners should know

Dr. Amber Itle
Washington State Veterinarian

Don't let Q fever "jump the fence."
Lambing and kidding season, the time of year when goats and sheep give birth, is winding down. But goat and sheep owners should remain diligent to protect themselves and their animals when assisting with a difficult birthing.

In these circumstances,  Q fever, a serious but seldom fatal zoonotic disease, can be transmitted to humans and other animals by sheep, goats and cattle.

Caution should be taken in the case of animals that have aborted. Goat and sheep owners should be aware of the issues around testing, risks of exposure and prevention of this disease.

What is Q fever?

Q fever is a disease caused by the bacteria Coxiella burnetii. This bacteria naturally infects some animals, such as goats, sheep, and cattle. C. burnetii bacteria are found in the birth products (i.e. placenta, amniotic fluid), urine, feces, and milk of infected animals.

  • Usually Q Fever does not show any clinical signs in animals, but can cause abortion. 
  • Q Fever is most likely to be shed around partition in the placenta, uterine fluids, or aborted material.
  • Animals can become infected when in direct contact with highly infectious material associated with parturition or nursing from an infected dam. 
  • People can get infected by breathing in dust that has been contaminated by infected animal feces, urine, milk, and birth products. Some people never get sick; however, those who do usually develop flu-like symptoms including fever, chills, fatigue, and muscle pain.
  • Q fever is commonly found in the environment and can survive for many years.
  • Q fever is considered to be an endemic disease in Washington.

Who is most at risk?

  • The highest risk of transmission is for those that drink raw milk and those that have direct contact with birthing fluids/ placenta, or aborted fetuses. 
  • Q fever is primarily an occupational hazard for farmers, veterinarians, and slaughterhouse workers in contact with infected domestic animals, especially around birthing. 
  • Immunosuppressed, the elderly, pregnant women and young children are most vulnerable to the disease.  
  • About 60 percent of people exposed to it do not get sick.  Those that do most commonly develop flu-like symptoms. 


  • WSDA has created a detailed biosecurity plan. Goat and sheep owners may find this voluntary Q fever management plan useful. 
  • If you experience abortions on your farm, contact your veterinarian for a full diagnostic work up.  

How to avoid Q fever
  • Avoid drinking unpasteurized milk products from cattle, sheep, and goats. 
  • Limit contact with birthing fluids and placentas during birthing. 
  • Protect yourself. Gloves, eye protection, and a protective mask can be worn when handling highly infectious materials and cleaning manure or bedding, especially from birthing pens.  

Testing for Q fever

Q fever tests detect antibodies to Coxiella burnetii. Antibody tests only determine past exposure rather than active shedding of the disease organism. The test does not determine if the animal is actively infected or if the animal is shedding the organism in the milk. Currently, there are no commercially available testing procedures for Q fever that give accurate and reliable definitive results. Therefore, WSDA does not recommend euthanasia of goats with a positive antibody test.

For more information

Contact WSDA’s Animal Health Program