Miniature Goat Breeds: What Exactly Makes a Goat Miniature?
Defining Miniature: How Big Is a Teacup Goat Full Grown?
Reading Time: 8 minutes
Why are some goats called “miniature,” while others are “pygmy,” “dwarf,” or just “small?” Which pedigrees can be termed “miniature goat breeds?” Is “miniature” a breed definition or a size specification? After all, the goat species comes in a wide range of sizes, and size can vary greatly between members of a breed, especially within a landrace.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary (MWD) defines a miniature as “something small of its kind.” As an adjective it describes “being or represented on a small scale.”¹ On use, MWD clarifies, “miniature applies to an exactly proportioned reproduction on a very small scale.”² How should we apply this to goats?
I asked Dr. D. Phillip Sponenberg, Professor of Pathology and Genetics at Virginia Tech and Technical Advisor to The Livestock Conservancy. He has studied many livestock species, including Nigerian Dwarf, Myotonic, and San Clemente Island goats. His reply was, “There is no really good single definition for ‘miniature,’ other than it means ‘small.’”³
Naturally Small Goats
Some goats evolve to be small compared to other breeds, as they survive better in their environment. Dr. Stephen J. G. Hall, Emeritus Professor of Animal Science at the University of Lincoln, UK, studied goats in Nigeria during his post-doc at the University of Cambridge. He noted that “… goats native to the coastal and middle belts (the West African Dwarf breeds) are miniature versions of those found in the north.” He believed that the body dimensions of Nigerian livestock were largely dictated by natural selection and adaptation to their environment and low-input, free-range village farming. He found that West African Dwarf goats (WAD) had similar relative body proportions to the northern goat “… implying a proportional miniaturization,” although the WAD had wider heart girth, giving a wide-bodied look.⁴
Other WAD have shown more disproportionate dwarfism, and both types were imported to America in the early twentieth century. Here, the Nigerian Dwarf was developed into a dairy goat through selective breeding of the proportional type, while others became the foundation of the African Pygmy.
What Governs Size?
Size and height in animals are determined by complex interactions of several genes with multiple environmental factors during development. Climate, living conditions, and food supply affect growth, so that goats raised in difficult circumstances may not reveal their genetic potential in their visible size. Their offspring raised in clement weather and abundant forage may turn out to be larger.
Genetically-determined size is governed by what works best for survival and reproduction within the native environment. Landrace goats are normally smaller than modern breeds selected for production in high-input systems. But this does not mean that the originals should be considered miniature. Heights at the withers for Arapawa, Old English, and Old Irish goats average 26–30 inches for males, and 24–28 inches for females. Like WAD, their small size helps them cope with harsh conditions and food shortages, as is typically required of heritage multi-purpose goats.
Registered Miniature Goat Breeds
Looking at miniature goat breed registries, we notice that breeds with “miniature” or “mini” in their name are normally founded on crosses with Nigerian Dwarf or Pygmy, bred to be small versions of larger standard breeds.
The Miniature Goat Registry (TMGR) states, “By definition Miniature Dairy Goats are dairy animals and the result of crossing standard dairy goats with Nigerian Dwarfs.”⁵ The Miniature Dairy Goat Association (MDGA) and International Goat, Sheep, Camelid Registry, LLC/International Dairy Goat Registry, DBA (IGSCR-IDGR) give similar descriptions.⁶ ⁷ Candidate lines are then developed through appropriate breeding plans to breed status.
The National Miniature Goat Association (NMGA) has a slightly different approach by including descendants of WAD that do not meet the standards of the registers for African Pygmy or Nigerian Dwarf. In addition, they are open to developing miniature breeds from crossing standard goats with Nigerian Dwarfs or Pygmy goats.⁸
Other mini breeds descend from genetically small members of standard breeds. Tennessee Myotonic goats, for example, vary greatly in size, and some breeders have selected smaller, stiffer lines for the pet market.⁹ Although Miniature Silky Fainting Goats were originally developed from crossing long-haired Myotonic and Nigerian Dwarf goats, there is “… no requirement that the Mini Silkies have to be crossed with Nigerian Dwarf goats.” It is the size and the look that is important to qualify as this breed.¹⁰
Australia has miniature goat breeds directly descended from selected small feral “bush goats,” as well as miniaturized versions of larger breeds. The latter are developed from a foundation of Nigerian Dwarf, Pygmy, or Australian Miniature crossed with a standard breed.¹¹
How Big Is a Teacup Goat Full Grown?
Each registry has its own definition or guideline for heights. MDGA advises, “Miniature dairy goats are between the sizes of the Nigerian Dwarf and the standard breed” and “The goal is to produce a mid-size dairy goat that, other than the smaller size, looks like the standard-sized breed.”⁶ The smaller size would make dairy farming more accessible on a small scale. Maximum heights vary slightly between registries but do not exceed the minimum specified for dairy goats by the American Goat Society (AGS).
Miniature Silkies are designed to be up to 25 inches (bucks) and 23.5 inches (does).¹⁰ The guideline for Australian Miniatures is no more than 24 inches (bucks) and 23 inches (does).¹¹ Nigerian Dwarf and Pygmy goats are given a limit of 23.5 inches for males and 22.5 inches for females by AGS¹² and their respective associations. WAD from research stations in Nigeria averaged 15–22 inches in 1979.¹³
Sizes here reflect breeders’ desire for a small goat, or for one smaller than the standard utility breed, reflecting the dictionary definition of a small or scaled-down animal. NMGA states, “Height is the main factor that designates a true Miniature goat.”⁸ However, the limits are meant to guide selection goals, rather than give a definition.
Is Miniature a Suitable Description for All Small Goat Breeds?
In the case of miniaturized versions of standard breeds, the term appears appropriate. It also seems accurate for the Nigerian WAD, a smaller version of native goats. But how about heritage regional breeds, such as San Clemente Island (SCI) goats? These goats can be quite small, but are in no way a scaled-down version of another breed.
In fact, the height and weight range of SCI goats is very wide. The median height to the withers reported by the San Clemente Island Goat Breeders Association (SCIGBA) is 23–24 inches for females and 25–27 inches for males. However, individuals range from 21 to 31 inches high.¹⁴ Dr. Sponenberg describes them as small,⁹ while SCIGBA considers them “traditionally a miniature breed.”¹⁴ The reasoning here is that they typify the same height range as the MDGA and TMGR miniature breeds, being larger than dwarfs and smaller than dairy goats.¹⁴ The MDGA describes this range as “mid-size.”⁶
On the other hand, the San Clemente Island Goat Foundation has noted much larger averages within their flocks. Most breeders describe them as medium sized. A herd of around 250 head in Nebraska averages 27–30 inches for adult does and 30–33 inches for adult bucks. As a slow-growing breed, their true size cannot be ascertained until they are three to four years old. Statistical averages need to reflect size at full maturity. In addition, local climate and availability of forage appear to have an effect on size.¹⁵
The Dangers of Classifying as Miniature
It is essential for the survival of endangered breeds that their full genetic diversity is utilized in breeding plans. The original population is the foundation and source of unique genetic potential. Their isolation in particular regions has given them adaptations that are useful to the species and our agricultural future. Therefore, no traits should be excluded from the gene pool, unless they lead to poor health.
Dr. Sponenberg explains, “The main issue in breed identification and maintenance involves the essence of breeds as genetic resources. They get that status by a combination of foundation, isolation, and then selection. The ‘foundation’ and ‘isolation’ pieces are especially important in local type breeds. ‘Selection’ is also important, but sometimes putting ‘miniature’ in as a definition becomes problematic, because then selection can somewhat take over as the main driver. Put another way, identifying something as ‘dwarf’ or ‘miniature’ inspires breeders to focus on size to the exclusion of other equally important factors.”³
Indeed, a minimum size is strongly recommended for Miniature donkeys to avoid breeding weak, unbalanced animals unable to raise young.¹⁶ This rationale hints at the dangers of setting breeding goals for smaller and smaller sizes. Fads for miniatures can cause health and welfare risks to the animals, disappointment to buyers uninformed of the animals’ needs and adult size, and the overwhelming of animal shelters, as was the result of the teacup pig craze. The very word “miniature” may even encourage such impulses.
Which Should We Define as Miniature Goat Breeds?
In conclusion, miniature refers to small animals or those that are a scaled-down version of a larger breed. In the U.S., it mainly denotes breeds from a dwarf-cross foundation. It is explicitly used in the names of some breeds with specific height guidelines defined by each breed registry. It does not seem appropriate for describing primitive or feral populations, such as SCI goats, which may vary greatly in size in different environments. To guide prospective goat keepers in what to expect, the more generalized terms small, medium, and large seem appropriate, together with a range of expected sizes. This should avoid husbandry issues, disappointment, and frustration when youngsters grow larger than expected.
(websites accessed February 8, 2022, unless stated otherwise)
- entry 1, sense 1b, and entry 2, Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “miniature”
- as above, under “Choose the Right Synonym”
- D. Phillip Sponenberg, 2022, personal communication
- Hall, S.J.G., 1991. Body dimensions of Nigerian cattle, sheep and goats. Animal Science, 53(1), 61–69.
- The Miniature Goat Registry (TMGR) FAQ
- Miniature Dairy Goat Association (MDGA) Information
- IGSCR-IDGR Registration Standardization
- National Miniature Goat Association (NMGA) FAQ
- Sponenberg, D.P., 2019. Local goat breeds in the United States. In Goats (Capra) – From Ancient to Modern. IntechOpen.
- Miniature Silky Fainting Goat Association (MSFGA) home page
- AABMGS Miniature Goat Society (Australian Miniature)
- American Goat Society (AGS) Breed Standards
- Ngere, L.O., Adu, I.F. and Okubanjo, I.O., 1984. The indigenous goats of Nigeria. Animal Genetic Resources, 3, 1–9.
- San Clemente Island Goat Breeders Association (SCIGBA) About and Miniature Explained (accessed February 12, 2022)
- Chad Wegener, John Carroll, Julie Murray, SCI Goat Foundation, Willow Valley Farms, NE, 2022, personal communication
- National Miniature Donkey Association. 2010. The Official NMDA Miniature Mediterranean Donkey Breed Standard. 17.
- Sponenberg, D.P., Beranger, J., Martin, A. 2014. An Introduction to Heritage Breeds. Storey Publishing. 158.
Originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.