Why Do Goats Faint?

Are Myotonic Goats the Right Choice for Your Herd?

Why Do Goats Faint?

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Have you ever walked up to a herd of goats and wondered, “Why do goats faint?” Maybe a few of the goats dropped over with stiff legs! You may have thought they were dead! It is a strange phenomenon that occurs in the goat world. Not all goats faint.

Myotonic goats were introduced to the United States in the 1880s.  As the story goes, goat owner John Tinsley was traveling through the United States from Nova Scotia and he sold a few of his stiff legged goats to some farmers in Tennessee. These early owners of Tinsley’s goats found they had great reproduction rates, and good muscle and meat quality.

Early Breed Development

The breed became popular for a time. Some farms bred for meat quality and larger size. Other farms were breeding for smaller size and maternal qualities. The wide range of sizes still exists today, however most farms will use the breed for meat.

The breed has been called a number of different names. Tennessee Fainting goats is one name given because of where they were first bred after being brought to the United States. “Wooden Leg goat” was a more likely name for the fainting goats bred in Texas. Still other names include “Stiffs,” “Nervous,” “Scare,” and “Tennessee Meat goat.”

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“Why do Goats Faint?” What’s the Real Story?

Do these goats really faint? When startled, the fainting goats appear to stiffen and fall over. But why do goats faint? The startle reaction in the breed is part of the condition myotonia congenita. The goats with this condition startle easily and their legs stiffen from a lengthy contraction of the leg muscles. But it’s not a true faint. The goat remains conscious and tips over. The reaction can vary widely depending on the goats.

Why do goats faint that are not part of the fainting goat breed? The condition is not exclusive to fainting goats. Even humans can have the myotonia condition. One of our Pygora goats has had many fainting episodes. At first I thought he had a seizure disorder. One day, while the vet was on our property for another reason, our goat conveniently had an episode. The vet assured me that it was a case of myotonia congenita in goats. He further explained that because fainting goats have a lengthy history in this country, it is possible that their lineage contains some connection to a Tennessee Fainting goat.

Photo courtesy of Goats Gone Grazing Acres

The Breed Registry Characteristics

There’s a wide variation in appearance with these goats. Landrace breeds such as these are developed over time from an unmonitored population. The background of myotonic goats differs from most of the goat types that are also popular in the country, including most of the dairy breeds and the Boer goat. Those breeds arrived with a standard breed appearance and qualities. The myotonic goats were developed and selected over time based on certain qualities. Much of that was determined by the needs of the local population. Some still carry the genes for smaller size. Others have large, curling horns. It’s also common to find fainting goats with very small horns.

Why Goats Faint

Although the breed description can be a bit confusing and muddled, there are criteria that the Myotonic Goat Registry uses as consistent traits that are very important and need to be preserved.

  1. Possesses a docile temperament.
  2. Myotonia congenita leading to stiffness and muscularity – the gene for myotonia congenita also is responsible for the excellent muscle quality.
  3. An abundance of high-quality muscle.
  4. Adapts well to low-input forage feeding system.
  5. Genetic distance from other breeds such that crossbreeding yields great hybrid vigor.

Item five can lead to some confusion and disagreement within the breed groups. The breeding for one characteristic over another can lead to a loss of the qualities preferred in the myotonic goat breed. Extremes within the breed are to be avoided according to the Myotonic Goat Registry. 

Photo courtesy of Goats Gone Grazing Acres

Breed Appearance

Fainting goats come in a variety of colors. These goats can be short-haired, long-haired, and some fainting goats produce cashmere fiber in the undercoat. Horns are another variable. Some exhibit the long curling horns and others only grow short, straight horns.

As both the Texas breeders and the Tennessee breeders worked to develop the breed, a wide range of acceptable traits are seen. Although the breed does not produce miniature goats, the weight range can be from 50 pounds to 175 pounds. The variety of color combinations makes each kidding season fun as new color combinations appear.

The breed is known to be gentle and easy to handle. Because they are generally docile, this is a good breed for a newcomer to raising meat goats. Additionally, the myotonia congenita provides another good reason for new goat farmers to consider this breed. The fainting causes the breed to be less likely to jump fences and cause trouble. The bulgy eyes are another trait that is common to the breed. And, as a landrace breed, fainting goats are more resistant to parasite issues. One trait that is consistent despite size of the goat is the heavy muscling. That feature makes the fainting goat breed a winner when raising goats for meat.

Gypsy from Briar Creek Farm

Livestock Conservancy Status

The breed had its initial popularity and then fell into obscurity by the mid 1950s. In the 1980s the breed began a comeback due to the meat quality and the growth rate. In addition, the females exhibit great maternal qualities and often produce multiple kids. It’s not uncommon for the does to breed and produce kids twice in one year. Some breeders began breeding for a smaller size goat, marketed more as a pet. The Fainting goats or Myotonic goats are now considered in Recovering Status by the Livestock Conservancy.

Did Your Goat Just Faint?

What should you do if you see a goat faint? Definitely observe the animal and make sure it has only had a myotonic episode. Other problems such as choking or responses to fighting may look similar to the new observer. Although the fainting response doesn’t harm or hurt the goat, it’s not fun for the goats to be scared in order to elicit this response. Learn all you can about the breed and what the myotonic response looks like. Caring for goats is a rewarding activity for that the entire family can participate in.

If you realize that certain actions bring on the fainting episodes, change your behavior. Maintain calm and act surely around the goats and other livestock. Sweeten the moment with favorite treats. The myotonic goat breed might be just the breed you are looking for.

Originally published in the January/February 2019 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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