Infectious diseases and parasitic infestations can cause a set of non-specific clinical signs, such as increased body temperature and resting, and a decrease in food intake. These physiological and behavioural changes have an adaptive function facilitating defences against the pathogen and to support immune functions. These so-called’ sickness behaviours’ can also be used as an early detection tool for disease. Foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) still causes great economic losses in endemic countries, especially to smallholder farmers. The aim of this study was to determine if behavioural changes in goats can be used as an early indicator of FMD virus (FMDV) infection. The efficacy of a Southern African Territories (SAT) FMD vaccine was studied on forty South African indigenous goats. Changes in daily activities (resting, feeding, walking), as well as social behaviours (social resting, social feeding, dominance behaviours) were recorded and then compared over time and between clinically affected and unaffected goats. Pedometers were used to estimate average daily steps and to compare between groups of study animals.
Eleven goats developed clinical signs of FMD, as well as non-FMD related sicknesses during the course of the study. Overall walking and resting behaviours were not significantly affected by the presence of FMD related clinical signs (p > 0.05). However, during the time of FMDV infection, social resting increased significantly (p < 0.001). Although goats developed FMD lesions on lips and tongues, percentage of time feeding was not affected (p = 0.762), suggesting that the study goats did not perceive the oral lesions as an important disturbance. Similarly, the number of steps did not consistently decrease in the presence of FMD-associated foot lesions. When affected by non-FMD related sicknesses, animals did not have an overall reduction in the time spent feeding (p = 0.867). However, goats affected with non-FMD conditions reduced the amount of social feeding (p = 0.002), potentially avoiding energetically costly competition at the feeding points. Overall, goats affected with FMD did not show more sickness behaviour, suggesting that FMDV infection in goats might not lead to obvious and therefore, easily detectable behavioural changes. This might have implications for farmers and animal health personnel, as individual goats infected with FMDV might be undetected within a flock due to the absence of obvious sickness behaviours, and the virus can therefore be spread more easily between herds through animal movements.