Selenium is a trace mineral that, although only required in tiny amounts, plays an enormous role in maintaining the health and productivity of goats and is crucial for maintaining various physiological functions.

Understanding its importance and knowing the signs of deficiency can help goat keepers to ensure the well-being of their herds.

What is Selenium?

Three forms of selenium.

Selenium is an a chemical element and micro-nutrient. It is essential for cell homeostasis (maintenance of an internal steady state) and functions as a powerful antioxidant.

In goats, as in other livestock, selenium helps to protect cells from oxidative damage, supports immune function, and contributes to reproductive health.

Where is Selenium Found?

Selenium is naturally present in the soil. In nature, goats obtain selenium by eating the leaves of plants that have absorbed selenium through their roots.

Some plants absorb more than others. Deep-rooted species accumulate greater quantities of selenium than those with shallower roots.

Common Plants Containing Selenium for Goats

  • Alfalfa
  • Cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower
  • Deep-rooted trees such as oak
  • Shrubs
  • Sunflowers and their seeds
  • Oats
  • Spinach
  • Corn
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Flax seed
  • Linseed

In some areas, the concentration of selenium in the soil is high, but in many places – most, in fact – there is very little selenium present in the soil. This means that even selenium-accumulator species will not contain the element in sufficient quantity to nourish your goats.

This is one of the reasons why goats’ diets must be supplemented by high quality minerals.

Europe in general has much less selenium in the soil than the USA, so it’s important to check where you are and plan your goats’ supplementation accordingly. You can even have the soil tested on your farm to find out its mineral composition.

As you can see from the maps below, Portugal and Spain generally have very low levels of selenium.

Areas of low selenium worldwide. [Selenium distribution in the United States adapted from Oldfield (1999)]
Selenium concentrations throughout Europe. [Via pharmanord.com]

Because selenium is only present in some forage species, goats kept in pastures or small pens, eating mostly hay, are at higher risk for deficiency. It is thought that goats raised in extensive systems with access to appropriate forage will be able to self-select plants that better balance their nutritional needs, although supplementation will always be needed.

Goats whose diet consists mainly of hay will be at higher risk of selenium deficiency.

To make matters more complicated, several other elements vital to goat health – copper, sulphur, calcium, zinc and iron – can have an ‘antagonistic’ effect on selenium and reduce its availability for your goats. Ensuring the right balance is therefore very important. Even if you live in an area with plentiful selenium, if your soil, concentrated goat food, or even your water (for example, well water) is heavy in antagonists, then your goats will still require higher levels of selenium supplementation.

Goats can also suffer from selenium poisoning if over-supplemented, or if eating large quantities of seliniferous forage. Chronic selenium toxicity can also manifest with similar signs to deficiency, so it’s up to you to work out which is more likely in your herd.

The nutritional values of plants in your pastures can also change with the seasons, so be aware that goats fine at one time of year may need more supplementation as the seasons change.

Signs of Selenium Deficiency in Goats

Selenium deficiency manifests differently in every goat. It can be subtle and many of the symptoms can also indicate other problems, so you need to be sure to rule out any other issues diseases before diagnosing a selenium deficiency.

Signs can include any of the following:

  • Listlessness
  • Rough and thrifty or sparse coat; even hair loss
  • Dandruff
  • Retaining winter coat longer than normal
  • Emaciation
  • Lack of vitality, anemia
  • Lameness, joint stiffness or discomfort
  • Overgrown or deformed hooves (circular bumps or breaks below coronary band)
  • Cardiomyopathy or liver cirrhosis
  • Reproductive failure or losses; weak kids
  • White Muscle Disease – A.K.A. Nutritional Muscular Dystrophy – most common in new-borns and fast-growing kids

Case Study: Gerônimo

In June 2024, we noticed our wether Gerônimo looking a bit sad. He didn’t have a lot of energy, his coat was rough, not smooth and shiny like our other goats. He had dandruff and dry skin, and swollen rear pasterns.

We quarantined him, as we weren’t sure of the cause, and gave him in a multi-vitamin injection containing selenium. Within three weeks, he was totally transformed. Look at the difference!

Gerônimo in June 2024: Showing signs of a deficiency – a rough coat, listless attitude, hunched posture and discomfort in his joints.

Gerônimo three weeks later: He looks like a completely different goat – now his coat is shiny, he is happy, full of energy and no longer showing signs of discomfort!

It should be noted that like all our goats, Gerônimo has free access at all times to a loose mineral mix containing selenium, but evidently he was either not partaking or not getting enough of what he needed from it.

Not all goats like the taste of minerals or instinctively eat enough – don’t assume that just because they have them that they are using them. It’s up to you to make sure that your goats are getting what they need one way or another.

How to Give Selenium to Goats

There are several ways to make sure that your goats are getting enough selenium.

Offer Selenium Free Choice

All goats should be offered free choice minerals, ideally as a loose powder. This mix will need to contain selenium in sufficient quantities for your area. Some people offer ‘mineral buffets’ where each element is provided separately so that goats may choose what they need, however this is difficult to implement and not all goats will dose themselves correctly.

Feed Selenium Rich Forage

Goats that are able to self-select naturally selenium rich plant species will be less likely to suffer from deficiencies, but supplementation is still important.

Selenium Injections

Goats that are suffering from selenium deficiency can be administered an injection containing selenium and vitamin E. Vitamin E is needed for selenium to work properly – goats that have a vitamin E deficiency may also suffer from effects mimicking low selenium. These shots can be given twice a year.

Selenium Paste

Selenium can also be administered orally in conjunction with vitamin E and D.

You can make your own selenium recipe for your goats as follows. This recipe is for a 40-40kg goat and must be adjusted as needed. Be very careful not to overdose your goats.

  • 10x 200 mcg selenium capsules dissolved in hot water – pour out the contents and dissolve in a little hot water.
  • Add oil from a 1000 IU vitamin E capsule and all the oil from an 800 IU vitamin D capsule.
  • Mix, cool and give orally.
  • If you do not add the D and E the selenium will not work.
  • You can add a sweetener like honey for palatability.

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