Breed Profile: Myotonic Goats
Tennessee Fainting Goats Make Economic Foragers and Delightful Pets
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BREED: Known mainly as Myotonic goats or Tennessee fainting goats, but also variously called Texas Wooden Leg, Stiff, Nervous, and Scare goats. The breed is an American landrace of variable size and appearance that shares many useful traits beyond the so-called “fainting” that has brought it fame.
ORIGIN: The earliest historical record of these goats is in the 1880s in central Tennessee, but their ultimate origin remains a mystery.
The Mysterious Appearance of Fainting Goats in Tennessee
HISTORY: Itinerant farm laborer John Tinsley, reputedly from Nova Scotia, came to central Tennessee in the 1880s with four goats of this type. After a few years, Tinsley moved on, selling the goats and their offspring to former employer Dr. Mayberry. In Tennessee, they were valued for their lack of climbing and jumping tendencies, making them easy to fence in. Breeders developed them as meat goats for local consumption. Similarly, in the 1950s, a few Texan ranchers developed a taller line with a focus on meat qualities. These Texan goats originate from the Tennessee foundation herds and remain part of the breed.
In the 1980s, exotic and unusual breeds became fashionable, increasing the popularity of myotonic goats. Registries were set up to track individual animals and their breeding. Some enthusiasts focused on small size, muscle stiffness, and their tendency to fall over. Later more breeders came to appreciate productive qualities and their commercial potential. The worry was that unique and useful traits would lose out to a focus on novelty. Not all goats who “faint” belong to the landrace breed, as the condition can be passed on through crossbreeding. The Myotonic Goat Registry keeps an open registry to seek out and preserve the traditional type and purebred lines. Like many local goat breeds, numbers dwindled at the end of the twentieth century, but are now recovering due to conservation efforts.
A Truly American Landrace Breed
CONSERVATION STATUS: Recovering on The Livestock Conservancy priority list. Endangered according to the FAO, with around 3000 head registered as at 2015.
BIODIVERSITY: As a landrace adapted to conditions in the southern states, the breed is an important genetic resource. Genetic analysis reveals links to Spanish goats, with Iberian and African ancestry. Crossbreeding gives hybrid vigor to other breeds, but risks diminishing the landrace gene pool. So, conservation of original lines is important.
Myotonic does at Dr. Sponenberg’s Beechkeld farm in Virginia (courtesy of D. P. Sponenberg).
Distinctive Features of Myotonic Goats
DESCRIPTION: Size and superficial qualities vary widely, due to recent selection toward different goals. However, breed members share distinctive body, face, and ear shapes, as well as stiffness. The body is stocky and thick muscled. Hair lengths vary from short and smooth to long and shaggy, and some grow thick cashmere in winter. The facial profile is straight to concave, with bulging forehead and eyes in some goats. Ears are medium sized and normally held horizontally; most have a ripple halfway down the ear length. The majority have horns and shapes vary: small and straight to large and twisted.
COLORING: The breed includes many colors and patterns. Black and white was favored by early breeders, but even these may produce offspring of different color.
Myotonia Congentia Causes Limb Stiffness
Stiffness is present to various degrees due to a medical condition called myotonia congenita, which is muscular rather than neurological. This is behind why goats appear to faint. Stiff legs occur because the muscle cells take a few seconds to relax after contraction. Some goats rarely stiffen, while others may walk with stiff rear legs and a swivel at the hip. Extreme stiffness is undesirable as it prevents goats from coping well with their environment.
When startled, excited, moving suddenly, or stepping over a low barrier, limbs may stiffen. Falling occurs if the goat is off-balance. The goat remains conscious throughout the episode. Related conditions in people and other animals demonstrate that it is painless. Once goats learn to accommodate the condition, they are less likely to fall. Goats habituated to people and their environment are unlikely to take fright. But, we should still take care to avoid alarming animals and to protect them from predators.
Multipurpose and People-Friendly
HEIGHT TO WITHERS: From 17 in. (43 cm).
WEIGHT: 50–175 lb. (22–80 kg).
POPULAR USE: Meat, landscape management, or pets.
PRODUCTIVITY: Prolific breeders with an extended season, normally producing twins, sometimes triplets. Thick muscling produces a higher meat to bone ratio of 4:1 (compared to 3:1 in most breeds) and a meat that is high quality, tender and flavorful.
TEMPERAMENT: Friendly and generally quiet: if they bleat it is for good reason.
ADAPTABILITY: They are good foragers and use winter feed efficiently. Being less agile than other breeds, they are gentle on landscape and fencing and are easy to contain. They have good parasite resistance. Those with long, shaggy coats are highly tolerant of inclement weather. Does are very maternal, with a good production of milk, and can rear up to three kids unassisted.
QUOTE: “The Tennessee goat has much to offer meat goat producers interested in a well-adapted goat for a low-input forage-based system. Their heavy muscling and environmental resistance are especially attractive as components of production systems. They are a nearly ideal converter of rough forage into high quality meat, while also maintaining great maternal ability and personalities that lend themselves to being kept as pets.” D. P. Sponenberg, Professor of Pathology and Genetics at Virginia Tech.
- The Livestock Conservancy
- WAMC/The Academic Minute
- Myotonic Goat Registry
- Sponenberg, D.P., 2005. Tennessee Myotonic Goats.
- Sevane, N., Cortés, O., Gama, L.T., Martínez, A., Zaragoza, P., Amills, M., Bedotti, D.O., de Sousa, C.B., Cañon, J., Dunner, S. and Ginja, C., Lanari, M.R., Landi,V., Sponenberg, P., Delgado, J.V., and The BioGoat Consortium. 2018. Dissection of ancestral genetic contributions to Creole goat populations. Animal, 12(10), 2017–2026.
- Photographs by Susan Schoenian, Sheep and Goat Specialist, University of Maryland Extension, are reproduced by her kind permission.
- Photographs by D. P. Sponenberg are reproduced by his kind permission.
- *Photographs by Jean are reproduced under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0.
Originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.