The Importance of Exercise for Pregnant Does
by Rebecca Krebs Exercising pregnant does is an often overlooked but essential part of goat management. Domestic goats and their wild ancestors have survived for millennia in varied environments by scaling mountains and roaming arid plains in search of food, water, and shelter. They were designed for that active lifestyle, so it is unnatural and potentially harmful to live in the confined, sedentary environment now commonly provided. We need to recognize this and change our management practices to facilitate more exercise. Here we will discuss how exercise affects pregnant does’ health and promote exercise even when enclosure space is limited.
Exercise improves a doe’s muscular, cardiovascular, and respiratory fitness. It gives her the strength and mobility to comfortably carry the growing fetuses, as well as endurance during labor and delivery. Since her body is already accustomed to exertion, she is less likely to injure herself or her unborn kids in the event of unusual physical stress during pregnancy. Her labor progresses faster than a sedentary doe’s, and she is at a lower risk of dystocia (birth complications) and C-sections.
Exercise also helps manage a doe’s body weight. The amount of fat reserves a goat carries is called a body condition score (BCS). On a scale of 1.0 to 5.0, the ideal BCS ranges between 2.5 and 4.0, varying with life stage. (Body condition scoring is a practical method goat owners can learn to evaluate the condition of their goats. Find further information from Langston University’s American Institute for Goat Research at luresext.edu/?q=content/body-condition-score.) The importance of a correct BCS before and during pregnancy is threefold.
First, a doe at a good bodyweight conceives more easily than a fat doe.
Second, she is more capable of carrying the pregnancy to term since her body is prepared to handle the extra demands. For example, a doe at the correct weight has a lower risk of pregnancy toxemia: a metabolic disorder caused when a doe cannot eat enough to meet her and her fetuses’ glucose needs. The disorder results in fatty liver disease and toxic ketones building up in the blood. It usually occurs in late pregnancy when the kids fill most of the body cavity, leaving little room for rumen and food. At this point, a doe may show symptoms including poor appetite, lethargy, and ataxia, potentially leading to abortion or death if not treated immediately. The risk of pregnancy toxemia increases when excess internal fat, in addition to kids, reduces the quantity of food a doe can intake.
Third, a trim doe has fewer birth complications than a fat doe. Her deliveries tend to be quick and simple. She rarely requires C-sections and is often capable of giving birth to kids that are in minor malpositions. If human intervention in birth is necessary, it can usually be conducted rapidly and successfully. In contrast, an overweight doe has more difficulty pushing the kids out because fat layers constrict space inside her uterus and birth canal. This doe is prone to prolonged deliveries and complications, including weak contractions, malpositioned kids, or kids too large to fit through the birth canal. At best, these problems stress the doe and kids; at worst, they lead to C-sections or the deaths of the kids or mother.
When we started raising Nigerian Dwarf goats, they lived on a pasture with plenty of space to exercise. The breed is known for easy birthing, and this was our experience with them, so I was surprised at how many complications I observed in some Nigerian Dwarf herds. I had to attend the school of hard knocks before realizing how much exercise influenced these results.
One winter, we housed 10 pregnant does in a small pen convenient to the milking parlor, while another group of pregnant does lived on pasture. Both groups had the same diet and mineral supplementation, but six suffered dystocia when the confined does kidded, including slow deliveries and seriously malpositioned kids. Several kids had died in utero due to the impact of pecking-order fights between the confined does, and the reintroduced pastured does. The confined does weren’t accustomed to that level of physical stress. Notably, the pastured does had no birth complications or dead kids.
Besides paying extra veterinarian bills, we lost 21% of the confined does’ kid crop. Sadly, this is a routine story for many herds that don’t get enough exercise. Usually, it isn’t the owner’s fault; limited space is more to blame. However, it isn’t a healthy cycle for emotions, wallet, or goat breeding projects.
Since that experience, we have implemented a simple exercise plan that works whether our herd is in a pasture or a small enclosure. The more space, the better, but either way, this makes a massive difference in the kidding outcome.
- Do not overcrowd goats. Overcrowding automatically limits how much they can move around.
- Space the shelter, food, water, supplements, and toys in separate locations around the pen so that the goats must take a short walk between each one.
- Install a goat shelf in the shelter for additional exercise.
- Add some toys to the enclosure. Anything goats can safely play with/on does the job.
- If the goats are tightly penned for safety reasons, consider letting them out into a larger area when it is safe, such as during the day if predators are a problem at night.
Use the exercise plan in conjunction with an appropriate diet. Establish it before breeding because it can harm pregnant does or their unborn kids if forced to begin exercising during pregnancy. Exercise should be moderate, not strenuous. Also, take each doe’s condition and environment into consideration. Only do what is safe for them. For example, does with other health conditions may be injured by too much exercise. Or, in deep snow, you may need to clear paths so that they can reach the food, water, etc.
Ultimately, it comes down to having a correct mentality about goats and remembering that they are active animals that need exercise. If we imitate their natural environment to provide more exercise opportunities, our does will be better conditioned for successful pregnancies and smooth, easy birthing.
Rebecca Krebs is a freelance writer who breeds registered Nigerian dwarf goats at Krebs Dairy Goats in the Rocky Mountains of Montana. She enjoys pouring over pedigrees and participating in the DHIR milk test program. Find her farm online at www.krebs.farm.
Originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.