Sore Mouth Disease afflicts Zion bighorn sheep population

ZION NATIONAL PARK – Sore Mouth Disease is thought to be responsible for illness recently observed among the bighorn sheep population in Zion National Park.

Also known as contagious ecthyma, Sore Mouth Disease is a chicken pox-like virus, typically self-limiting and mild. It is common throughout the world in wild and domestic sheep and goats. Spread from ewes to lambs, it can manifest itself in sores around the mouths of lambs and cause mastitis of the ewes’ teats. Lesions typically disappear in two to four weeks. It has the greatest effect on lambs, who because of sore mouths, refuse to suckle.

Big Horn sheep at Zion National Park, Utah, Nov. 2010 | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News
Big Horn sheep at Zion National Park, Utah, Nov. 2010 | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News

Though rarely fatal, park biologists expect to see some mortality. Since the incubation period is one to two weeks, visitors could possibly see sick animals for many months as the disease moves through the population. Sore Mouth Disease is not eradicable, but subsequent outbreaks are usually less severe.

There is no cure for Sore Mouth Disease in sheep; only supportive treatment can be given. Treatment in this case is not a viable option due to the number of animals involved and the stress sedation puts on sick animals.

Sore Mouth Disease is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can spread from infected sheep to humans. People exposed to the virus, especially those with poor immune systems, can develop sores on their hands after touching the saliva or open sores of infected sheep. In humans, the sores are painful but usually resolve on their own without treatment. There have been no reported human cases to date, but the park is reminding visitors not to approach or touch wildlife.

“People should never be approaching wildlife at Zion National Park, so we do not expect to have any issues with visitors contracting this disease from the bighorn sheep,” Park Superintendent Jock Whitworth said. “It is hard to watch a disease spread through a population, but we need to let nature take its course.”

If visitors see a dead or dying bighorn sheep, they are asked to notify park dispatch at 435-772-3256.

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Submitted by: Zion National Park

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