Goat Enrichment: The Importance of Mental Health

Psychology Facts About Goats and Goat Behavior Problems

Goat Enrichment: The Importance of Mental Health

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A holistic view of health is a powerful weapon for ensuring a long productive life. The mind is a key player: emotions have been shown to affect growth, productivity, and the immune system. Distressed animals are difficult to handle, perform poorly, and heal slowly. Positive emotions promote resilience and help animals to cope with challenges. Goat enrichment provides opportunities for goats to use their minds and bodies to raise their morale and optimize their health. Research has uncovered some important facts about goats’ psychology which will help us provide and enjoy the best experiences when caring for goats.

Goat behavior problems can arise due to traditional management system designs that are biased towards hygiene and efficiency. Enclosures devoid of goat enrichment, such as climbing structures, offer no stimulation for goats’ active minds, no hiding places for those seeking privacy, and no escape from the aggression of dominant animals.

A Sad Goat Is an Unhealthy Goat

Boredom can lead to frustration and depression. While this does not stop animals gaining weight and reproducing, health and longevity will be affected. Abnormal repetitive behaviors may result, some of which may be destructive, such as crib-biting, over-aggression, and excessive rubbing or biting of self or others. Some of these issues could be resolved by adequate space, socialization, and goat enrichment.

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Abnormal behavior, such as biting of stall and body parts (note ear wound), may occur in small barren stalls.

Goat Climbing Structures and Goat Enrichment

In their natural environment, goats roam mountains in taxing conditions. Consequently, they are curious, active, social individuals who thrive on solving challenges. In the easy conditions of the farmyard, this cognitive need may easily go unrecognized.

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Goat kid engaged in natural, selective browsing.
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Goats naturally favor browse and actively pursue it.

Recent research recommends enrichment of animal enclosures. We can buy brushes, toys, and goat climbing structures to enhance pens. Platforms and partitions within goat housing enable goats to control their social contacts and take refuge when desired.

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Goat enrichment playground at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats.
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Goat enrichment playground at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats.

Goat enrichment provides stimulation of goats’ minds with emotional and health benefits. Positive emotions promote resilience and help goats to cope with life’s challenges.

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Goats appreciate a brush to rub against.

Goat Bullying Arising from Enclosure Design

Communal troughs require vulnerable animals to compete for feed with stronger herd members, leading to the former missing out. A common social issue in modern system is bullying. A look at the natural lives of goats throws light on this frequent problem.

In the wild, feral goats form small female social groups based on family membership, while young bucks leave the family to range with others from their nursery group. Goats have evolved to cooperate with close family members, but compete aggressively with strangers. They are also used to having plenty of space to avoid aggression. They keep their society stable by respecting the hierarchy and keeping their distance from dominant members.

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Fighting over feed may result in vulnerable goats missing out.

When confined to the goat barn, it is harder for them to maintain the expected personal space. Subordinates may get trapped, dominants become frustrated, and the order becomes unsettled when members leave or new goats are introduced. Frustration can lead to bullying, and bullied goats can become tyrants as they grow and ascend the ranking.

Competition can lead to poor nutrition for some, and these goats can go on to form anxieties over getting enough food. Goats will target higher quality feed naturally, as they evolved where forage was scarce. Undernourished goats may overeat when circumstances change for the better, leading to obesity, ingestion of unsuitable feed, and aggression around feed-racks.

Respecting Goats’ Social Nature

A stable upbringing is required for goatlings to learn and develop all the social and foraging skills that they need. This means being raised by the dam in a familiar group of adult and same-age herd members. In this way they learn the manners of the hierarchy.

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Kids raised on the dam in a family group.

As domestic goats often change hands or are separated early from their mothers, they miss this essential learning and can develop problematic behavior. Hand-raised kids become over-attached to humans, sometimes to the point of irritating clinginess or persistent butting for attention. Kids raised with little caprine contact find it difficult to integrate with other goats. Some lack the ability to defend themselves, while others become over-aggressive. Raising kids with access to their mothers, older relatives, and other kids would resolve most of these issues. However, it is not too late to socialize disadvantaged animals, given plenty of surveillance, space, and ample facilities to hide and escape aggression. This is an important skill when integrating new animals, especially in shelters for rescue goats.

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Bonded goats enjoy resting together.

In some cases, fear of humans can be a serious welfare issue: when every handling experience is frightening and distressing. Gentle and regular handling from a very young age eliminates this natural anti-predatory fear, even in dam-raised kids. Goats will readily adopt humans into their family circle if they have positive experiences of humans from early life. Frightening or punitive experiences can leave emotional scars, inducing phobias that are hard to shift. Goats are naturally wary animals due to their need to avoid predators. New places, people, equipment, and procedures should be introduced very gradually, letting goats approach in their own time, so they know that they are safe.

Keys to Mental Well-being: Control and Choice

Goat psychology is all about whether they feel secure, comfortable, and meaningfully occupied. Certain behaviors have evolved to be necessary, even if you are providing for the physical need in an alternative way. For example, even if enclosures are predator-proof, goats need places to hide and escape so that they feel safe.

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For a healthy mind, goats need a degree of control over their environment, so that they can find ways to meet their biological and psychological needs. This can be as simple as providing options so that goats have the choice of where to be, what to do, and who to be with. There must be adequate facilities so that the whole herd gets a chance to meet their needs while remaining together. Examples are access to the goat shelter and outdoor space, raised and hidden rest places, hard surfaces to climb upon, warm bedding to cozy up within, and separate areas for rest, feeding, and play.

Keys to Mental Well-being: Predictability and Variety

Predictability is also important to a species that is vulnerable to predators. This is why goats feel safer with routine and are fearful of change. On the other hand, their active minds require some degree of novelty. When ranging, goats maximize safety by sticking to known routes, while they remain engaged in foraging and social activities. We can provide a familiar but complex environment by providing goat climbing structures, hanging up different types of forage, such as branches, and rotating pastures that include brush and trees. Variety is key, and toys should be changed frequently to avoid boredom. When handling, we can gently habituate goats to our routines and incorporate positive goat training. This enhances trust and bestows a degree of control over interactions.

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Climbing and feed enrichment provided within goat enclosure.

Can Animals Sense Depression and Joy?

Goats are emotional animals, and they communicate their feelings through voices, postures, and the expression on goats’ faces. If a goat is distressed or excited, nearby goats will read this emotion and be affected by it. Fear or anticipation can quickly spread through the herd this way. We can also spread a little happiness throughout the herd by encouraging positive emotions. Regular happy events help our goats to pull through tough times. Similarly, a harmonious herd of bonded animals make a wonderful emotional buffer, as they give each other moral support through life’s ups and downs.

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Goats are highly social and bonded animals provide one another with emotional support.

Further Reading:

Miranda-de La Lama, G.C. and Mattiello, S. 2010. The importance of social behaviour for goat welfare in livestock farming. Small Ruminant Research, 90(1-3), 1–10.

Nawroth, C., Langbein, J., Coulon, M., Gabor, V., Oesterwind, S., Benz-Schwarzburg, J. and von Borell, E. 2019. Farm animal cognition—linking behavior, welfare and ethics. Frontiers in veterinary science, 6.

Zobel, G., Neave, H.W. and Webster, J. 2018. Understanding natural behavior to improve dairy goat (Capra hircus) management systems. Translational Animal Science, 3(1), 212–224.

Originally published in the Goat Journal 2020 special subscriber issueGoat Health, From Head to Hoof and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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