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Scabby Mouth

Scabby mouth (contagious ecthyma, pustular dermatitis, orf) has been recognised by sheep producers for many years as a costly disease in terms of reduced productivity and profitability.

Scabby mouth is a viral disease affecting sheep which is easily transmitted by other infected animals. Although lambs are at greatest risk, all sheep are potential targets.

The scabby mouth virus develops and grows on damaged skin caused by contact with thistles, hay, coarse pastures and stubbles. Feedlot environments and the use of pelleted feed are also conducive to virus development by causing abrasions around the mouth and making sheep more vulnerable to infection.

Clinical signs may vary between sheep, however cool areas such as the surface layers of the skin around the face and feet provide ideal environments for disease growth and development. The scabs are most commonly found on the mouth and lips, face, feet, teats and udders as well as the poll of rams. These sores can limit the ability of the sheep to feed and can cause lameness. The disease takes approximately 4 to 5 weeks to resolve.

Morbidity rates can be as high as 100% while mortality rates can exceed 5% in severe cases as a result of complications such as blowfly strike, mastitis in ewes and secondary bacterial infections. Treatment is rarely beneficial, therefore grazing management and vaccination provide the best means of control.

As the movement of sheep between properties has increased, so has the spread of disease. The virus can survive on the wool and skin for long periods of time and in the environment for many years. Scabby mouth vaccination is a requirement for some export markets.

Scabby mouth is also an important zoonotic disease. Shearers and others working with infected sheep are at risk of contracting the disease by handling these animals. 

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