Elder Goat Care: Preparation and Treatment Tips
How to Care for Goats into Their Senior Years
Reading Time: 12 minutes
Goats can live fairly long, well beyond their productive years, and enjoy a healthy retirement, provided we pay extra attention to their condition and needs. As they age, they become more susceptible to disease and parasites, temperature extremes, mobility issues, and the effects of long-term conditions. Senior goats will need an individualized plan of elder goat care to remain healthy and enjoying life.
Production does and entire bucks have strong demands on their bodies, through hormonal urges, births, and lactation. They may live no longer than 9–12 years. Pet goats, wethers, and does who have had few litters may live much longer, often until 16–18 years old, occasionally into their early twenties. Does may continue to be fertile in later years, although they tend to have single kids, produce less milk, and become prone to birthing issues. In any case, they should not breed beyond 10 years of age.
The most common issues are weight loss or gain, osteoarthritis, dental problems, less effective immune system (meaning that elderly goats may struggle to fight infection), and the progression of chronic illness, such as caprine arthritis encephalitis (CAE) or Johne’s disease.
Care of Weight and Body Condition in the Elder Goat
The body shape changes as aging goats lose muscle mass, and this can confuse our assessment of body condition. The topline loses padding, while fat is stored within the abdomen. A goat may appear skinny at the spine while remaining an ideal weight.
For ideal weight and nutrition, retired goats should be living off pasture, browse, and hay without supplementary cereal or legume feed (unless they can no longer manage forage). The best hay for elder goats is a variety of meadow grasses and weeds, rather than alfalfa or other legumes. When not growing, pregnant, or lactating, goats’ protein needs are only 7–8%. Legumes and concentrates give higher levels of protein and energy than they need.
Excess weight may result in a large, round abdomen, especially in pygmy goats (although a distended abdomen may be due to other causes, which I will mention below). Senior goats may exercise less while eating the same amount, resulting in weight gain that leads to other difficulties. Overweight goats will need to eat lower-quality hay and pasture and be encouraged to exercise. They are more at risk of heat stress, needing shaded, well-ventilated areas, cool water, and regular monitoring.
A distended belly may be due to other causes, such as tumors, bloat, gut blockage, pregnancy, or simply a weakening and stretching of the abdominal floor muscles and tendons. The latter can occur in does who have had multiple litters or large kids, as the muscles take considerable strain at the end of pregnancy. In the worst cases, rupture of the muscles can lead to hernia, as the intestine passes down through the abdomen floor and gets trapped. However, there are many cases of dairy does (especially Saanen) whose abdomens and udders simply drop as the muscles stretch permanently. The abdomen may appear rather large, but without health consequences.
Loss of Body Condition
Weight loss is also common, as browsing becomes more difficult, and senior goats can become quite fussy. Hay should be leafy and thin-stemmed. Dampening hay can make it easier to consume. If goats can no longer manage long-fiber forage, seek advice from a veterinarian for a suitable replacement. Depending on your goat’s condition, the veterinarian may advise short-cut grass, equine hay replacer, and/or supplements. High-fiber pellets, alfalfa pellets, beet pulp, and cereal can be soaked to make them easier to ingest. If a goat is hardly eating, temporarily adding a little molasses will encourage consumption until the new food becomes acceptable.
As always, introduce new feeds gradually, in small doses, to avoid acidosis and bloat. If they must resort to cereals or alfalfa (or other legumes), wethers will need ammonium chloride supplementation and plenty of water to help them avoid urinary calculi. All goats need a constant supply of clean, tepid or slightly warm water to aid digestion and maintain hydration.
Competition from other goats may reduce a fragile herd member’s ability to feed. Subordinate goats may benefit from being fed in a separate pen. Thin goats struggle more in the cold and burn more energy keeping warm. They need thick bedding in a dry, easily-accessible shelter. You may also need to check that they do not get stuck outdoors in rain or inclement weather. As hair thins, a well-fitting coat or rug could help during cold spells, as long as it does not block the path of urine (encouraging pizzle rot), does not slip and block movement, and you remember to check body and coat condition underneath. Ceramic panels can give a safe source of heat for the barn, as long as the equipment is not accessible to tampering or knocks from goats.
Age-Related Arthritis and Poor Mobility
Like humans and dogs, aging goats’ joint cartilage wears down and bony protuberances may form on their bones. This can cause arthritic pain in one or more joints. Goats with poor bone formation or trauma from injuries may develop osteoarthritis at an earlier age of 6–7 years, but by 10, most goats will start to suffer. CAE-infected goats may develop arthritis from 2–3 years old. Adult goats’ “knees” (carpal joints) often click, but this does not necessarily indicate arthritis. Normally this is just air bubbles popping and nothing to worry about. Arthritic goats have swollen or enlarged knee joints and may resort to holding up the affected leg and becoming less active. Other joints may become arthritic, even the spine. In either case, goats may become unwilling to rise. Hooves will need extra trimming and vigilance due to lack of wear and poorer immunity.
Exercising with Ease
Encouraging goats to gently exercise will help them to minimize degeneration. My own elderly doe started climbing when I installed platforms, although she already had arthritis and had not jumped up for years—this has given her a new lease of life! Surfaces should be non-slip and access to vital areas should be possible without having to surmount any large steps. Long-fibered straw may wrap around legs and deep bedding can make movement more difficult. Concrete is hard on the legs and feet and can become slippery when covered in wet straw, as can wood. Dirt floors or rubber mats provide a more suitable surface for elderly legs and deep beds of short-cut straw should be provided where seniors normally sleep. Sand beds can work well in warm, dry climates, if they are kept clean and dry.
Access to Necessities
Although exercise is good, it is important that vital resources are available nearby as walking becomes more difficult. Hay, water, minerals, and pasture should be easy to reach, even on off-days, which are more likely in cold, damp weather. If goats have a long trek to reach pastures, the older herd members will naturally try to keep up. However, some may fail or get stuck out alone due to fatigue and pain. At some stage, they may need to form a subgroup that stays nearer the home base to graze. The subgroup should contain bonded individuals, so they do not pine for their favorite companions, and consist of gentler members who are unlikely to bully fragile elders.
Senior goats may struggle to reach some food resources. You may need to lower racks to make them more comfortably accessible. If a goat needs to access feed while lying down, ensure that the feed and its receptacle do not become soiled.
Pain Management Care for the Elder Goat
Pain will reduce a goat’s motivation to rise, walk, and exercise. This may lead to obesity, which will further aggravate joint pain, and hoof problems. Some sanctuaries give positive reports of natural supplements to reduce inflammation and arthritic pain, such as Curcuma species (including turmeric), Boswellia serrata (Indian frankincense), and Ribes nigrum (blackcurrant buds). These plants need to be prepared in a way that preserves their active properties. Some supplements designed for horses may be suitable for goats. Glucosamine and chondroitin supplements may help if administered by injection. If taken orally, the rumen is likely to break these products down before they can be absorbed. Although there is little research on the effect of these food supplements in goats, your veterinarian may be able to advise you on doses and products that have been reported to provide relief.
As pain progresses, stronger pain relief may be required to keep a goat active and enjoying life. NSAID anti-inflammatories are effective, but you will need a veterinarian to prescribed these off-label. Flunixin injection can give quick pain relief for a day or two to get over the worst, but cannot be used daily for more than three days at a time. For continual treatment, your veterinarian may prescribe Meloxicam off-label in regular injections or daily tablets. Although long-term use may cause stomach ulcers, this is less likely than for pigs or dogs. Other eventual health risks are kidney degeneration and blood thinning. However, a goat who cannot rise will have no quality of life. You might find that it is worth the risk to alleviate the pain for the short time your goat has left. Nevertheless, you must closely monitor for signs of intestinal pain and health deterioration.
Dental Care in the Elder Goat
As goats age, teeth wear down through use, especially on sandy soils. Due to goats’ browsing habit, the incisors wear down less than those of sheep, whose close-cropping grazing technique is particularly abrasive. Goats can cope well with missing incisors, although complete loss or a misaligned jaw would hinder grasping and tearing of foliage. Elderly goats’ incisors develop a rounder profile, appear elongated, and slant further forward, giving the appearance of an undershot jaw. As long as the incisors meet the dental pad of the upper jaw, this is not an issue.
Molars receive a lot of wear during a long life. They continue to grow to support the grinding action of chewing and cudding. Pressure from molars on the opposite jaw keeps them in shape. The chewing action normally causes uneven wear due to the lateral grinding motion of the jaw. Over time, sharp points will develop on the tongue side of the lower set and the cheek side of the upper. This is not a problem if they cause no damage to the surrounding soft tissue. Sometimes, these points become large enough to injure the tongue or cheek, and these will need to be filed down or removed by a veterinary surgeon. Similarly, if a molar is lost, the opposing molar will grow unchecked, become sharp, and cause tissue damage. In addition, food accumulates in the empty socket and may lead to infection.
Spotting Dental Problems
It is wise to check elderly goats’ teeth regularly. Incisors are easy to inspect by lowering the bottom lip. Molars can be felt through the cheeks by pressing along the jaw line. If you suspect a molar issue, you will need a veterinarian to inspect the mouth, as it is very narrow and molars are difficult to see. The goat jaw is extremely strong and fingers trapped between molars can be crushed. A veterinarian will need to sedate the goat to inspect and work on molars.
You should suspect teeth issues if your goat has difficulty eating or drinking, shows appetite but soon stops eating, drops cud, has cud stuck between teeth and gums, or eats while holding the head to one side. The mouth may smell bad and the goat may lose weight.
In addition to missing and sharp teeth, there may be abscesses or tumors to treat. Root abscesses may present as a swelling along the jaw line.
Your veterinarian may advise a change in diet. As retired goats should be living off long-fiber vegetation, only swap to short-cut or pelleted food on veterinary recommendation and introduce new foods slowly and progressively (as described above).
Minerals will be easier to consume if loose, rather than a solid block that may loosen or break incisors. Warm or tepid water is easier for sensitive mouths to consume.
Hoof Care for the Elder Goat
Similarly, hooves become more prone to common problems, firstly because of uneven wear, secondly due to lower immunity to infection. If a limb or joint develops a condition such as arthritis, the gait may become uneven. This leads to some hooves being worn down more than others or one side of a hoof or toe growing longer than the other sides. Similarly, hooves will grow faster as goats become less mobile. More frequent hoof inspections are needed to ensure that hoof growth does not become excessive and unbalanced, leading to discomfort. If a limb has arthritis, it may need supporting while you trim hooves of other limbs.
Goats regularly fed concentrates may develop chronic laminitis (founder), leading to deformed or box-shaped hooves. These goats will need a forage-only diet (as should all retired goats) and regular gentle hoof trimming to regain a comfortable shape.
Older goats may become more susceptible to worm overload and other parasitic infections. Consider senior herd members as vulnerable when targeting parasite testing and control.
Caprine Arthritis Encephalitis (CAE)
Late-onset chronic diseases are likely to affect infected goats as they age. The CAE virus may be contracted when young, but remain undetected in the system for several years. The arthritic form of CAE normally does not appear until adulthood, although usually before old age. It is progressive, typically first showing as sore, swollen carpal joints (“knees”). It may then spread to other joints: hock, stifle, fetlock, neck, and hip. You may notice lameness, or the goat may just move stiffly, have difficulty standing up, or be reluctant to move.
Sometimes, CAE causes pneumonia, first showing as a chronic cough, then leading to rapid or noisy breathing, enlarged lymph nodes, and loss of body and coat condition. Occasionally, the udder is affected, becoming hard as tissue progressively shrinks.
Similarly, Johne’s disease may not be apparent for 2–10 years after infection. If your goat eats well, but steadily loses weight, gut inflammation may be reducing the ability to absorb nutrients. As the disease progresses, inflammation spreads, and is ultimately fatal.
Tumors and Abscesses
As goats age, the risk of contracting caseous lymphadenitis (CL) increases, as does the likelihood of developing other abscesses or tumors. Few cases of cancer have been documented, as production animals generally do not live long enough for malignant tumors to develop. However, for people who wish to keep their goats into retirement or as pets, it is important to realize that both benign and carcinogenic tumors can develop internally and externally, just as in any other mammal. The first signs may be lumps or weight loss.
End of Life Considerations
Goats suffering from an incurable condition may no longer have a reasonable quality of life. In this case, it may not be kind to keep them alive. This difficult decision will depend on the severity of pain or the type of disability, and you will need to prepare a rational plan for euthanasia. Your veterinarian and humane associations can help you to decide when it is time to say goodbye.
Goats can live happy, long lives, if living conditions allow them comfort, safety, and ease of access to resources. As goats age, their needs and abilities change. They become more susceptible to:
- temperature extremes;
- mobility issues;
- competition from other goats.
Consequently, you will need to make changes to elder goat care, diet, facilities, and social grouping, including:
- free access to long-fiber fodder with low protein content (7–8%), such as grass, browse (brush, trees, weeds), and hay;
- no cereal or legume supplementation;
- plenty of fresh, clean water;
- mineral supplementation, as appropriate for your soil;
- easy access to pasture, water, and hay racks;
- protection from competitors;
- soft bedding and flooring with non-slip surfaces.
- Matthews, J.G., 2016. Diseases of the Goat. Wiley Blackwell. 616–621.
- Open Sanctuary Project
- Smith, M.C. and Sherman, D.M., 2009. Goat Medicine. Wiley Blackwell. 388.
- Interview with Dr. Michael Pesato, Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine, by Deborah Niemann.
- Xanadu Animal Sanctuary
- Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats
- Le refuge des Croq’Epines
- Chèvrerie Sorène
- SPA Animalia – Refuge & Sanctuaire
Feature and title photo by the author.
Originally published in the November/December 2022 and January/February 2022 issues of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.
For further information on keeping retired and pet goats, check out this free online course. at the Open Sanctuary Project.