Domestic and wild sheep and goats, and the risk of Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae

Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (M. ovi) is a bacterial species that is commonly found in the nasal cavity and sinuses of apparently healthy domestic sheep and goats.
It is transmitted to wild sheep and goats (bighorn sheep, thinhorn sheep and mountain goats) via nose-to-nose contact and, less commonly, aerosol/droplet transmission. In bighorn sheep, and very likely thinhorn sheep, M. ovi has been associated with large all-aged die-offs due to pneumonia, which is often followed by years of lower lamb birth and survival rates that can have devastating population impacts. 
Interactions between domestic and wild populations can occur throughout the year. These occurrences tend to increase during times of wild sheep rut.


What happens during a M. ovi outbreak: 

What happens during a M. ovi outbreak
Wild sheep and goat herds usually remain within a certain core herd home range, but individuals will periodically leave the herd and may travel as far as 50km on extended “forays” outside normal herd territory. Bighorns can be attracted to, and interact with, domestic sheep that they encounter on these forays. 
To keep wild sheep and goats safe, it is important to be aware of M. ovi and work towards eliminating these interactions.

M. ovi in domestic sheep and goats  

M. ovi bacteria can be classified into different strains. These strains are not all the same, and different animals can be infected with different strains, even within one flock or herd.

In experimental studies, M. ovi has been shown to slightly reduce weight gains in domestic sheep. There have been some instances of M. ovi causing significant clinical respiratory disease.

Sheep and goats

How do I know if my sheep or goats carry M. ovi?

Testing for M. ovi

If you are concerned about M. ovi in your domestic sheep flock or goat herd, learning more about its impacts is the first step, followed closely by testing your animals. It is also recommended to discuss your concerns with your veterinarian. Please contact the Animal Health Centre for more information on obtaining and handling samples, as well as for advice on testing strategies tailored to your flock/herd.

Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests

  • PCR tests look for genetic evidence that the organism is currently present.  PCR tells us that the DNA of M. ovi was present on the sample tested. This usually is an indication of current infection but does not actually tell us if the bacteria are alive and replicating.
  • Animals may shed this organism intermittently or in low numbers, so repeated testing is often needed to confirm that an individual animal is not infected.
  • Work with your veterinarian and/or consult with the veterinarians at the Animal Health Centre for interpretation of testing and if repeated testing is needed.

How to submit a laboratory specimen

Collection and storage: Samples must be aseptically collected and kept refrigerated immediately after collection. Samples that cannot immediately be transported to the laboratory should be stored at 4°C for a maximum of two days, or frozen if they are going to be stored for longer. 

Swabs for bacterial PCR tests:  For nasal swabs use polyester swabs with a plastic shaft and avoid cotton and wood (these contain PCR inhibitors). Swabs can be obtained from your veterinarians. Swabs can be submitted in sterile saline or universal transport media (UTM) also available from your veterinarian. Swabs submitted in bacterial transport media are not suitable for PCR testing. Please contact your veterinarian and/or the Animal Health Centre if you have questions.

How to keep your animals wild-sheep-safe

Domestic and wild sheep share several infectious organisms, but their immune systems and tolerance of disease are very different. To prevent pneumonia, wild sheep and goats should be kept separate from their domestic cousins. Despite much research, there is currently no effective treatment or vaccine, but there are things you can do to help:

  1. Establish your flock/herd’s M. ovi statusM. ovi status is determined by testing nasal swabs from your animals. If your flock/herd is M. ovi free, make sure that they do not interact with other M. ovi positive flocks/herds. Follow appropriate biosecurity practices to protect your flock/herd, including pre-testing and quarantine of new arrivals.
  2. Know where wild herds are located – this will help you determine if your flock are at risk to interactions withtheir wild counterparts. Researchers have developed buffer zones surrounding the wild sheep and goat herds within British Columbia. An interactive map of Bighorn and Thinhorn sheep ranges can be found here.

  3. Fence for safety – Secure fencing is crucial to maintain separation from wild sheep and goats. A number of designs are available to help prevent contact with domestic sheep and goats.
  4. Report – Please call the Report All Poachers and Polluters (RAPP) line immediately if you see wild sheep or goats in an area that risks contact with domestic sheep or goats or vice versa.

Removing M. ovi from a group of domestic sheep or goats could benefit producers by improving lamb or kid weight gain, as well as overall herd health. There is currently no cure for M. ovi; however, research is underway to establish possible treatment protocols.

General resources for producers

Publications are available on health and nutrition of sheep and goats, including:

A guide for producers on biosecurity, common animal diseases and how to prevent and/or treat them.

The Codes of Practice, developed by the National Farm Animal Care Council, are guidelines for the care and handling of farm animals. They are an excellent source of practical information:

Learning more about wild sheep and mountain goats

There are also resources available through wild sheep conservation organizations such as: