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Dealing with Coccidiosis in Sheep, Goats, and Calves

Coccidia. Photo from Wikipedia
Coccidia. Photo from Wikipedia

One of the pleasures of spring is watching young animals at play. Healthy, vigorous young lambs, kids, and calves race and spring into the air. But suppose that instead of this scene, you walk out and find that your young animals look empty and lethargic, their coats are rough, and they have diarrhea. What is wrong?

It might be intestinal worms, but a more likely possibility is that the young stock are infected with coccidia. Coccidiosis is a parasite infection caused by the protozoan organism coccidia (also known by the scientific name Eimeria). Since immunity to the infection develops over time, young animals are more susceptible to infection and disease. It is normal for adults to harbor small numbers of coccidia without any signs of disease, and they are likely a source of infection for their offspring.

Coccidia ExamplesMedications that work in fighting intestinal worms will NOT kill coccidia. Therefore, recognizing coccidiosis and understanding how to manage livestock to prevent or minimize illness is important. Probably the first sign of a problem with coccidiosis is diarrhea: hindquarters and tails may be coated with manure. Along with that, animals may show decreased appetite, listlessness, weakness, and abdominal pain.

Conditions that may lead to coccidiosis include keeping young stock in conditions that are crowded, wet, or unsanitary. Animals that are under stress from bad weather, poor handling practices, weaning, illness, or poor nutrition are also more susceptible to coccidiosis. To prevent coccidiosis, make every effort to reduce stress on the animals and improve sanitation and living conditions.

Consulting with your veterinarian is necessary to devise a coccidiosis treatment program, which may include feeding ionophores, treatment with sulfa drugs or amprolium, and/or alternative treatments. Notice that some medications are used for prevention; these are coccidiostats. Other medications are treatments: coccidiacides that kill the organisms in the intestines. Be sure to follow instructions carefully when using any treatment.

Those wishing to avoid using medications, or who are raising organic animals, may choose to use natural-compound alternatives to mitigate the effects of coccidia. Options include sericea lespedeza and other condensed-tannin-containing plants, such as birdsfoot trefoil, acacia, sainfoin, panicled tick clover, pine bark, and quebracho. Conventional producers may also want to consider these natural alternatives, because overuse of conventional compounds may lead to resistance. You can download the ATTRA publication, “Coccidiosis: Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment in Sheep, Goats and Calves” for a table of treatment options.

You can find more information on managing coccidia in this free, online publication from ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture Program. Just click on over to download your copy.

As with any disease, prevention is the best cure for coccidiosis. However, understanding the control measures available can help producers prevent and manage outbreaks when coccidia loads are too high and illness is manifested. Consult your veterinarian for more specific information regarding timing of treatments.

Finally, notice which animals do not become ill despite equal exposure. Selecting breeding stock from those stronger animals will improve the health of the flock or herd over time and lower the contamination on the farm.

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Linda Coffey
Linda Coffey
Linda Coffey is a Sustainable Agriculture Specialist, focusing on sheep and goats. She grew up on a diversified livestock farm in central Missouri, where her family raised cattle, hogs, and sheep. Linda has a master’s degree in Animal Science from the University of Missouri. She is a member of the American Consortium for Small Ruminant Parasite Control (ACSRPC), American Dairy Goat Association, and Gulf Coast Breeders Association. Linda and her family run Maple Gorge Farm near Prairie Grove, Ark., raising sheep, dairy goats, and a few laying hens. A couple of calves, three livestock guardian dogs, and occasionally hogs complete the farm.


  1. I have a couple questions:

    1) Can one prevent or limit exposure to coccidia through grazing management/pasture rotation?

    2) Does coccidia infestation increase (or decrease) in a multi-species grazing situation, particularly with poultry involved?

    • Sarah, great questions. Coccidia are species-specific, so the poultry won’t impact the other grazers in that way. Clean water tanks and feed troughs and good sanitation in holding areas help prevent coccidiosis, and good grazing management/pasture rotation will help by reducing exposure to manure. Keeping stress low helps the immune system, as does good nutrition. Coccidia are shed by mature animals; the goal is to keep the young animals from ingesting too large a dose that overwhelms their developing immune systems. Wet conditions are conducive to coccidia infection, by the way, so be alert for symptoms after a rainy spell.

  2. Here is more about sericea lespedeza:!slcoccidia/c170d
    It is true that it can be invasive in some situations. It was already present on our farm, and the sheep and goats are grazing it hard enough that it is declining every year. For those who already have sericea on their property, using sheep or goats will help get it under control, while possibly giving a health benefit to the animals.

    I had not heard that apple cider vinegar works; I am curious, too, about the dose.

  3. Please don’t recommend sericea lespedeza. It quickly becomes invasive in natural areas and native pastures and is being considered for noxious weed status in several states.

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