Do You Know the Difference Between Goats and Sheep?
Is a Goat a Sheep? Confusion about Ruminants
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Do you know the difference between goats and sheep? I know, being a fiber goat shepherd, I often see people who mistake one species for the other. Because my Pygora goats can grow a long curly fiber and when fully in fleece, they do resemble sheep. They both are ruminants, and roam around lazily eating green plants. Their four-chamber stomachs cause them to take lengthy afternoon naps, while the rumen processes contents from the stomach or abomasum. But that is where much of the resemblance stops.
Sheep are closely related to goats in the taxonomy of classification of organisms up to a certain point. They are from the family of Bovidae, and the sub family of Caprinae. The genus Ovis and the species aries refer to sheep while at the genus and species level of Capra aegagrus hircus is for domestic goats.
Both goats and sheep are common in many countries of the world and provide meat, milk, and fiber for clothing. So just exactly how can we tell the difference?
Goat experts Katherine Drovdahl and Cheryl K. Smith offer valuable tips to avoid disaster and raise healthy, happy animals!
Outer Appearance of Sheep and Goats
Tails up or tails down is one way to differentiate between sheep and goats. A goat usually holds its tail up unless it is sick or injured.
Sheep tails hang down. In addition, sheep tails are often docked or cut down to a few inches for sanitation and health care reasons.
The Better to Hear You
Some people will point to the ears as another difference between goats and sheep. Or the horns, thinking that only goats have horns. Both of these criteria will lead you down the garden path. Sheep do tend to have droopier, more folded ears, but not every breed follows this trend. Milking breeds have ears similar to the ears on milking goats. And while some goats have ears that stick up, Nubians have long, pendulous, droopy ears.
Close to the ears, you may find horns. Goat horns tend to be more narrow and straight up. Sheep often have the curled around near the head type of horns. Angora or Pygora goats also tend to have curled horns.
The area underneath the nose on sheep and goats can be a clue. The upper lip on a sheep has a clear divide. On a goat, the divide is almost non-existent.
And we can’t forget about that buck odor during mating season. While both goats and sheep can get quite “rammy” during the breeding rut, the buck or intact male goat will develop quite an objectionable odor. Once you have encountered this special perfume, you will never again mistake a male goat for a sheep. Our rams have never had such a distinct mating aroma surrounding their bodies.
Can Goats Have a Wool Covering?
Our flock of Pygora goats often has people confused. When in full fleece before the spring shearing, they are curly and fluffy, much like sheep. We have even taken them to live Nativity scenes where they played the part of the sheep, quietly munching hay near the manger. Very few people questioned their acting ability and just assumed they were sheep.
Another confusing issue are hair sheep breeds. These animals are sheep in every sense of the word, but their fleece self-sheds each year. No shearing is needed, and no fleece is produced for yarn products.
Here’s the truth, though. Goat fiber is mohair, and never wool. It can be referred to as fiber, goat fiber, or locks, in the case of Angora-like curls. Wool is grown on sheep. (Angora fiber is produced by Angora rabbits but that’s a whole different discussion!) Both fiber goats and wool-bearing sheep require shearing each year. Some fiber goats require shearing twice a year for an optimal product.
After shearing, both wool and fiber will need cleaning, washing, and carding before it can be spun into yarn. Some people prefer to work with one type of fiber or wool over another. Just as with any other product, you might prefer mohair yarn over wool yarn. Or maybe you will choose alpaca yarn, which another animal that is not a sheep, and yet provides fiber. When determining the difference between goats and sheep, knowing your fiber characteristics is helpful.
Behavior of Sheep and Goats
Both sheep and goats are ruminants that eat plants. The four-chamber stomach digests plant matter and you will often find animals of both species lazily reclining in a shady spot, as the rumen ferments the food. That is about where the similarities end regarding nutrition and digestion.
For the most part, goats will browse and sheep will graze. Finding a goat standing on its back legs to get to the top of a plant is not uncommon. Goats will go to great lengths to reach the tiny tender leaves at the top. Sheep may eat other plants besides grassy pasture, but they don’t often try to reach plants farther than the neck can stretch.
Adding other livestock to the area where your goats and sheep are can carry risks too. Keeping goats with chickens is safer than allowing sheep to graze with chickens. The problem is the sheep are very sensitive to copper levels in their feed. If they consume chicken feed, it can lead to copper toxicity. This can also occur if the sheep ingests poultry manure that fell on hay. While copper toxicity is can be a concern with other breeds of goats, it is not as critical, but fiber goats are especially sensitive to consuming excesses of copper.
Reproduction Differences Between Goats and Sheep
Since goats and sheep are different species, it is understandable that they would have different chromosome counts. Goats have 60 chromosomes and sheep possess only 54. It is extremely rare to have a successful mating of a sheep and a goat. They are different species and the internal organs and cycles are different. A ewe has an average 17 day estrus cycle while a goat cycle is 21 days. Goats are often less seasonal breeders and show more bizarre behavior during heat. Gestation length in goats and sheep averages 150 days.
If you keep both goats and sheep, you have probably noticed other differences. Do your sheep have a different bleat, and a lower pitch, than some of your breeds of goats? Do they exhibit different behavior such as how they play or how they interact with each other? Some goat and sheep owners even claim that sheep do not waste nearly as much hay as goats do. Others say goats are more intelligent, or at least more likely to get into trouble, than sheep.
What differences between goats and sheep have you noticed?