Brother by an Udder Mudder: Fostering Kids with an Adoptive Doe

Brother by an Udder Mudder: Fostering Kids with an Adoptive Doe

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Brother by an Udder Mudder: Foster kids with an adoptive doe.

Sherri Talbot Kidding season is a delight, but it can be stressful when faced with a potential “bottle baby” you hadn’t planned. It’s hard to know what can result in needing to step in, but it happens. The mother may die during labor, reject the kid due to poor mother instincts, or be unable to provide milk. In some breeds, the issue can be too many kids born to a single mother — she cannot provide enough milk to feed them all.  

If you weren’t planning for a bottle baby, and the idea of being up every two hours all night doesn’t appeal to you, you may wonder if you could convince another doe to take over the chores. After all, if you have a second doe in milk, and she has plenty to give, why not have her adopt the extra little tyke and do the milking for you? 

That can be more complicated than it seems. Unlike some livestock types, goat mothers can be reluctant to foster. Rabbits will often take a new kit for a week or more as long as they are tucked into the nest while she is away. Ewes have been reported adopting lambs, sometimes with and sometimes without intervention. Beef cattle are reportedly fostered onto new heifers quite frequently and with a high success rate by simply isolating the heifer and the calf together.  

Goats seem more likely to be ambivalent or aggressive toward other kids. This can depend on the breed and the individual temperament of the goat, but in general, they seem less likely to adopt than sheep, cattle, or even rabbits. If the doe has lost a kid, she may be willing to accept another young baby shortly afterward. This is helpful with larger herds where several may give birth simultaneously, but less so with small herds where kidding may be days or weeks apart. 

In addition, finding scholarly information on fostering — or grafting — kids is extremely difficult. You can find the occasional magazine article and plenty of anecdotal stories, but little objective research is available on what does or does not work. The only research we found suggested that vaginal stimulation would make it more likely that a doe would accept a kid. However, in the example given, the conditions likely resulted in the adoption of the kid anyway; there was only one kid and no controlled study. Studies show this to be successful in sheep, but we could find no literature on goats other than the one study. 

Based on the little information available, we only know a few things with any semblance of certainty. Attempt to graft a kid, preferably immediately after the doe gives birth, to increase the chances of success. Some cases suggest that grafting improves if the kid doesn’t smell like their biological mother. Rub the kid thoroughly with afterbirth from the adoptive mother, so she cleans it off alongside her biological baby, bonding and accepting them both as her offspring.  

Other reports state that covering the kid in birthing fluids allows for bonding between doe and kid. FIA, a company in the U.K. that researches and consults on successful lambing practices, reports that in sheep, “wet fostering” is the most successful method of moving lambs between ewes, but still not foolproof. We found no data or literature on success rates for goats. 

More extreme cases involve skinning the doe’s dead kid and wrapping the orphaned baby in it. Literature from Oregon State University stated that this method takes several days in sheep and is often unsuccessful. Again, we could find no research on goats. 

All versions of this scent-based fostering suggest that the doe and the kid be watched for several hours to ensure that the baby is thoroughly cleaned and allowed to nurse. It’s also vital to ensure the kid is willing to nurse from a strange doe. Assuming it has been bottle-fed since its birth or even become a “house goat,” convincing it to change its known routine may take time and effort.  

Working to convince a reluctant kid to nurse is much the same as the process of getting it to take a bottle. Getting the doe’s milk on your hand and the bottle nipple so they can get used to her smell and taste is an excellent way to start. It will likely take several tries to move the kid toward nursing before it finally suckles. Again, information can contradict the best feeding for a kid while waiting for a doe to freshen and take over. Some say that providing milk from a doe — even if it still involves bottle feeding — is better than using a powdered supplement so that it stays accustomed to the taste of a doe’s milk. Others say that once a kid is used to a bottle nipple, getting it to take a teat is more difficult due to the differences in size, shape, and texture. All agree that the older the kid, the more difficult it will be for either party to accept the change.  

Grafting a kid several days or a week after its birth carries more complications than with newborns and is even less likely to be successful. If the kid is older, the doe is often less willing, so finding ways to “disguise” it as a younger kid may be helpful. One trick found when researching included tying the legs together so the kid would cry and flair around like a newborn unable to stand. Others have said they have more luck if they convince the kid to suckle in the dark.  

If she doesn’t take the kid on her own, some goat owners report luck with holding the goat’s head and simply letting the kid nurse to activate the doe’s mothering instincts. The Victorian agricultural department out of Australia suggested this method for sheep, no matter the age of the lamb. They highly recommend it over bottle feeding, stating that fostering is easier and preferred for the lamb’s health.  

Some goat owners report holding the doe’s head and offering her grain or treats while the kid nurses to provide positive reinforcement for allowing the kids to nurse without a struggle. More complicated cases have reported hobbling the doe for several days to get her used to the kid’s presence without endangering it. In sheep, research by Oregon State University suggested it takes about four days for this method to work to graft lambs onto a new ewe, but we could find no data for kids. 

It is difficult to know what to do in cases of orphaned or abandoned kids since the literature needs to be more extensive on the topic. There is far more official literature on grafting sheep, while goats still need to be studied, and anecdotal accounts vary wildly. In the future, more concise studies can be done. For the goatherd trying to figure out the best method, using available resources on sheep — for now — may be their best option. 

Originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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