Goat Behavior Demystified
Why Do Goats Headbutt? ... and Other Conundrums
Reading Time: 7 minutes
Goats are lively creatures who entertain or frustrate us with their playful and inquisitive behavior. Ever wondered why they act as they do? The survival strategies they developed before domestication equipped them to thrive in a difficult environment, where food was hard to find, terrain rough, and predators many. Goat behavior that evolved in the mountains has persisted throughout domestication and has enabled them to adapt to many different environments.
Goats originated as wild animals in Middle Eastern mountains and, following several domestication events, have been spread by human herders throughout the world. Their wild ancestors, the Bezoar, and other goat species persists in their natural lifestyles, to which feral goats readily return, enabling naturalists to discover the truth behind goat facts and dispel the fictions.
What Do Goats Like to Eat and How Do They Forage?
Where goats evolved in the mountains, forage was sparse and patchy. Goats had to be skilled at finding and accessing nutritious food in tricky locations. The foraging style they adopt is called browsing: they are selective, choosing the most succulent plants and quickly moving on, ignoring the more fibrous matter. They prefer the leaves of bushes and trees to grasses and single out meticulously the herbs and weeds that they need.
On the other hand, they will also graze grasses when more nutritious food is unavailable, and have adapted well to this habit in their domesticated form. Mind you, they tend to take off grass and weed tops only, leaving them quite tall, and will reject pasture that they have trampled and dunged. This may seem wasteful to us, but it is actually parasite avoidance. Evolved to eat at head height or above, goats have not developed the resistance that ground grazers, such as sheep, achieve. Goats who graze grass short are desperate for feed and are prone to ingesting worms.
How Smart Are Goats at Foraging?
The problem of finding elusive nutrition has equipped goats with inventive problem-solving skills paired with agile bodies and dexterous lips. They will go to some lengths to access a tidbit or escape, and they learn fast. I’m sure you’ve noticed how smart goats are. Some goats figure out how to open latches or bolts on gates, and can learn from watching humans or other goats. They are also willing to stand on their back legs or even climb trees to snatch a few delicious leaves. Their lips navigate the spikiest bushes to pick fruit, flowers, or young leaves.
Do Goats Eat Everything?
Sometimes, it appears that goats eat strange things, but normally they are just investigating. They explore items with their lips, but reject what they do not like or trust. They may not always eat suitable fodder that you might expect them to like. Cautiously, they take time to accept a new foodstuff.
Why Do Goats Climb and Rest in High Places?
Their agility is also vital for predator avoidance. Wild-ranging goats are vulnerable when they descend from rocky crags to water or feed. From a young age, they must learn to escape to higher ground promptly when threatened. They are naturally nimble, and play or training while young enables them to develop their climbing skills. We enjoy the joyful acrobatics of kids, who also appear to relish the challenge of gates and fences.
Goats, like all herd animals, are highly vigilant against the threat of predation. They prefer open ground with clear sight lines. As they browse, they regularly scan their surroundings. Goat eyes and ears are quick to react to movement or sound. They stay in a group as there is protection in numbers: less chance of being singled out, plus more eyes and ears to the task.
Why Goats Need Routine and Familiarity
This need for protection balances their curiosity with caution. Even in the wild, goats prefer to stick to known routes. They are not territorial, but tend to cover a fixed area learned from their elders, although mature males will range further to access new females. They favor a fixed home base to return to at night and during inclement weather to rest and shelter. They are shy of new places and can be wary of new objects, due to this urge to stay safe. Similarly, they feel comfortable with a fixed routine, as they know what to expect and feel secure. If you need goats to travel and stay calm with new experiences and people, they need training while still young to prepare them for changes.
Why Goats Fake It
Herd animals instinctively avoid showing pain or sickness when watched. Predators will pick out isolated, young or weak animals. Ungulates are known to prance and jump to discourage predators by displaying their fitness. Lame goats may suddenly appear fit when you try to catch them. This is a reflex against being restrained, which would be dangerous for them in the wild.
Goats Are Ruminants
Rumination is a hidden labor, requiring plenty of rest and time. It allows goats to build and maintain their bodies using only plant matter. Dairy goats produce more milk than is natural. Consequently, their bodies work harder and require extra nutrition and rest. Goats mainly rest lying on their sternums. Unlike horses, their legs do not lock when standing up. Dry lying places are required for them to rest and sleep, and enough space so that the whole herd can lie down without fighting for places. Goats prefer to browse early in the morning and in the evening, and rest up in the middle of the day and overnight.
Why Do Goats Headbutt and Fight?
The risk of predation and harshness of their natural environment has molded goats into social animals who depend on their companions for safety and information. This inevitably leads to competition for resources, as they all want to benefit from the feed, mates, and shelter that they find. Survival is not served by injuring family members or potential mates, so hierarchy and ritual fighting have evolved to settle disputes and reduce fighting. A head-to-head butt is a ritual to establish ranking and priority access to resources. A head-to-flank butt is last resort aggression when a subordinate does not comply. In the confined spaces of the farmyard, it can be harder for subordinates to get out of the dominant’s way. Overstocking increases frustration and bullying. Goats that have been bullied may transfer their aggression to others in future. Butting is also used in play fighting and when thrashing bushes in play or to release frustration.
Goats may also wish to play with or challenge humans. They do not realize that our heads and hides are not as tough as theirs. They may butt humans for attention, feed, or to prevent us from taking their feed. If they feel that we present a threat or competition, they may charge us. The way that they perceive us is not always what we intend. We need to learn how to deal with an aggressive goat before the behavior gets out of hand. The best way to prevent such attentions is to discourage it from early on. Avoid any rough play with goats, even when very young. Avoid pressing on the forehead or any action that may be seen as a challenge. Better to be seen as their provider than a rival. Make sure that they never get what they are after as a result of butting.
Goat Behavior Changes
The season for goat reproduction brings huge changes in behavior. Males clash often, performing elaborate displays. Females cycling through estrus show distinctive signs of goat heat. Pregnant goat behavior is also affected by hormonal balance, which may cause temporary changes in sociability. Again, you can use such observations to identify goat pregnancy. Otherwise, goat behavior changes can herald health issues, displaying symptoms you should never ignore. Therefore, it is well worth getting to know your goats individually, monitoring their behavior and responding to any changes.
Animals can perform out-of-context behavior when they are anxious, confused, or frustrated. If the problem is brief and they resolve it, there is no lasting harm. However, some long-term management conditions, such as confinement in barren or crowded pens, can lead to chronic distress that manifests itself in repetitive, and sometimes damaging, comfort behaviors, such as body or crib biting. These habits can persist, even when the cause of distress is removed.
How Do Goats See the Situation?
Goat behavior can sometimes be puzzling. It may be that a natural behavior just seems irrelevant in a modern setting, and that it is a trait that has evolved during their wild ancestry. For this reason, it is important to understand goats’ normal behavior: both of the species and each individual. It also helps to understand their perspective and how they experience each circumstance. In this way, we can provide for their needs more easily, working with them rather than struggling to control them. If we know what is normal, we can identify when something is wrong.
Originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.