When You’re Hot, You’re Hot
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By Sherri Talbot – Like many new farmers, goat owners often worry about their goats too much in the wintertime and not enough in hot weather. Heat and humidity can be as detrimental for goats as it can be for humans. Unlike humans, goats do not have the ability to remove clothing, fan themselves, find air conditioning, or grab a drink from the fridge. In some areas, shade is even in short supply! For goats under these conditions, heatstroke is a common problem and can result in refusing food and water, reduced milk production, infertility, spontaneous abortions, and death.
Some Like it Hot (Some Do Not)
A number of natural factors can result in goats being more or less sensitive to heatstroke, often a result of where the goat breed was derived. Goats originating from warmer climates often have longer ears and loose skin, which allow them to shed body heat better. Breeds such as the Damascus or the Nubian goat — which has Middle Eastern ancestry — use their long, floppy ears to remain cooler in sunny, hot, or humid conditions.
The coat of the breed will make a difference, including color and density. In climates with varied temperatures, goats will produce a layer of cashmere to keep them warm in the winter, which they will then shed in order to stay cool in the summertime. However, goats like the Angora — with dense, quick-growing coats — are likely to have a poor tolerance for hot conditions. Goats with short, pale-colored coats will tolerate heat more easily than goats with heavier, dark-colored coats. However, there are mixed results on this as genetics and breed type do seem to also play a role with “color vs. heat tolerance.”
Goats with horns also have a greater ability to shed heat than polled or disbudded goats, as horns contain blood vessels specifically designed for retaining or dispersing heat. Polled or disbudded goats lack the ability to dilate or expand those vessels, giving them fewer natural ways to regulate their body temperature.
Demographic factors also play a role in goats being able to shed heat. Very young or very old animals are likely to have poor tolerance for heat and humidity. Female goats will often tolerate heat better than their male counterparts, unless they are pregnant — one of the reasons goats are often bred in the fall for a spring pregnancy.
Environmental factors and methods of care also affect a goat’s ability to stay cool in hot climates and it is important for goat owners to provide their goats with a proper environment, especially if they have one or more of the risk factors mentioned.
If the goats lack access to natural shade such as trees or a stone outcropping, owners will need to create it for them with some sort of shelter or lean-to. This can be a simple tarp, or a combo structure for them to climb on and/or hide under. Make sure there is enough room for everyone in the herd!
Water is an important way of staying cool. Fresh water is vital, and goats should be provided with cool — not cold — water as frequently as possible. The more water the better; your goats will likely drink up to two gallons of water each during the summer, or even more if they are nursing. Immersing a goat in cold water can be harmful if it shocks their system, but a sprinkler system or misting them with a hose several times a day can help keep your critters cooler.
Ventilation is important in keeping grazing livestock cool. If possible, keep goats where there is a breeze, or create one with fans. Especially if it can be combined with a sprinkler system, moving air can decrease the chance of a goat overheating.
There are mixed opinions on feeding grain during the summer. While some sources mention grain as “hot” food, others argue that goats produce less body heat digesting grain than they do forage.
Farmers Who Stare at Goats
No matter how great your setup may be, it is important to keep an eye on your goats during days with high heat and humidity. Goats can still get overheated, despite your best efforts.
If a goat gets overheated, they will begin to pant. While this may be normal cooling behavior for your pooch, in your goat can be an early sign of distress.
Goats refusing food is a warning sign. This may seem obvious, since goats never refuse food, but keep an eye out, nonetheless. Also, it might seem logical to think that a goat not drinking means that it is well hydrated and there is no room for concern. However, when goats are suffering from intense temperatures, they will actually begin to refuse water as well as food. Attempts to force them to drink may be appropriate at this point.
Goats, like dogs, will often stretch themselves out on the ground in order to stay cooler. This allows them to dissipate more body heat into the ground, faster. However, a dog might remain to lie on the floor if a trusted person comes near it. No matter how comfortable your goat is with you, when approached the goat should stand. If not, the goat is likely to be suffering extreme heatstroke and you should take its temperature. A temperature over 104 degrees F means the goat is too hot and can no longer cool itself. If the goat cannot be cooled by external means — such as the aforementioned water misting and airflow — get them medical care right away.
As always, situations and goats differ. There may be some goats that show different symptoms of heatstroke or sunburn than others. It is always important to know your own goats and, if in doubt, consult your veterinarian.
Originally published in the July/August 2021 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.