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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Animal & Veterinary

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GOATS AS PETS

FDA Veterinarian Newsletter May/June 2000 Volume XV, No III

By Amey L. Adams, Ph.D.

The following article provides information on goats as pets. Veterinarians may wish to duplicate this article and provide copies to their interested clients. As always, material that appears in the FDA Veterinarian is free of copyright and may be reproduced without permission.

Goats as a species have been the object of ridicule and "bad press" for centuries. In ancient times, a community would lay their hands on a goat to symbolically transfer their sins to the animal, then send it out into the wilderness, carrying their sins away. Hence the origin of the term "scapegoat." In the New Testament, Christ tells his followers that he will separate the sheep from the goats, meaning the good from the bad, and the goats will be cast out into the darkness. From a more modern standpoint, goats are often perceived as a nuisance with bizarre appetites and destructive habits.

The truth about goats is that they are one of the most intelligent of domesticated species, rivaling the pig and the dog. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this intelligence, combined with curiosity and a highly active, energetic temperament, often causes problems for the owner, neighbors, and the animal itself. However, in an appropriate environment, goats can make excellent companion animals. They are noted to have highly individual personalities, and are capable of great affection and loyalty to their human caretakers. Goats can be trained to pull small carts, making them a fun and novel activity for children. Because of their small size and trainability, goats make an ideal 4-H project for younger children who might have difficulty handling larger farm livestock.

Multi-Purpose Animals

Although not economically important in the U.S., goats are a significant source of food, income, and draft power in many countries around the world. Goat milk and dairy products are an important commodity in Europe, and goat meat is highly prized in many African, Middle Eastern, and Caribbean countries. Here in the US, goat milk is sometimes recommended for the lactose-intolerant, and for many children who have difficulty digesting the fat and protein of cow’s milk. Angora goats produce mohair, and most goat breeds produce at least some cashmere, the soft fibers prized for sweaters. In much of the western US goats are being promoted as a low-cost, environmentally friendly biological control for weeds and brush which cattle and sheep do not consume.

Not for Everyone

Goats are considered farm livestock, and rightly so. Goats can be trained to walk on a leash and perform many of the tricks we might teach our dogs. It may even be possible to housebreak a goat. However, because of their high levels of activity, they require considerable space, much like a horse. This is true even of the diminutive Pygmy goat, which packs a lot of bounce in its small frame. Most domesticated goats originated in mountainous areas, and they retain their agility and propensity for climbing and jumping. Thus, you should not be surprised to find that your goat has leapt to the top of your kitchen table, or hopped over the backyard fence. Goats are highly social animals, and easily bored, so it is generally recommended that they be kept with other goats or other farm animals. Simple toys should be made available, such as a soccer ball or basketball, or even an empty (well-rinsed) bleach bottle tied to a stake or fence post.

Breeds

In the US there are approximately 10 major goat breeds; five dairy breeds, two meat breeds, two dwarf/pygmy breeds, and the mohair-producing Angora. Breed associations exist for all of the major breeds. To decide what breed would best fit your lifestyle, I recommend you contact your local cooperative extension agent or the breed associations.

The dairy breeds include Alpine, Saanen, Toggenburg, Nubian and La Mancha. The Alpine is often called "the Holstein of goats" because of its high milk production relative to other dairy breeds (roughly 10 to 12 lbs. milk per day). The Nubian or Anglo-Nubian is popular among owners who want a gentle pet as well as some milk for home consumption/cheese making.

The major meat-producing breed is the Boer goat, imported into this country from South Africa and New Zealand. The so-called "Spanish" goat is a dual-purpose goat whose ancestors most likely were brought from Spain in the 1500s. They are raised principally for meat, although many strains produce a substantial amount of cashmere. This is the breed most used by ranchers who want to clear brush and weeds from pasture land in the western US

Probably the most popular breed for pets is the Pygmy. Its small size (40-50 lbs.) makes it more appropriate for owners with very limited acreage, and it retains that "baby goat" appeal into adulthood. A less well-known small breed is the Nigerian or West African Dwarf goat. These goats are slightly larger than the Pygmy (approximately 60 lbs.), but still smaller than the full-size breeds, which can range between 95 to 225 lbs. Dwarf goats were originally bred as dairy goats in West Africa, and will also produce some milk for home use.

Goats Do Not Eat Tin Cans

One of the many myths surrounding goats is their peculiar appetite. However, one must distinguish between what the animal actually consumes, and what it might pick up out of mere curiosity. Goats, like small children, have a propensity for mouthing or "tasting" any new object they encounter. Choking is a hazard with goats for this very reason. On the other hand, they will readily consume paper, tree bark, and your prize roses, given the opportunity and/or inadequate space or alternative food sources.

Meeting the nutritional needs of pet goats is relatively easy. Good quality hay, such as alfalfa, combined with a source of minerals and vitamins (such as a salt lick appropriate for horses, cattle, or sheep), and access to good quality pasture is essential. Goats are considered mixed browsers/grazers, which is to say that they will eat grass and the leaves of bushes with equal appetite. For this reason, it is important to identify any toxic plants, such as rhododendrons, which may be on your property and take steps to prevent your goats from exposure to these plants. Adult pet goats generally do not require grain, except perhaps during winter months when green feed is less available. Because goats are ruminants, like cattle and sheep, grain feeding must be undertaken with care. Lower energy grains, such as crimped barley or oats, should be introduced slowly, one handful at a time, and fed only in very limited amounts to maintain the goat in good body condition. Goat pellets can be purchased for growing or lactating goats, which are specially formulated to meet their needs. Do not feed horse sweet-feed to your goats.

Billies or Nannies?

Another issue to consider when deciding to buy a goat is gender. Uncastrated male goats produce a strong, pungent and, to most people, unpleasant odor. Male goats, or bucks, also tend to be aggressive. Both of these less-than-desirable attributes are intensified during the breeding season, which for most goats runs from September to December or January. Buck goats can be castrated as early as 7 days old, which generally mitigates both these problems. Female goats, called does, do not have a noticeable odor, unless they are kept in unclean conditions. Generally speaking, does are even-tempered and affectionate when hand raised. However, I must again point out that goats are highly individual in their personalities. Female goats need only be bred if their milk is desired.

Whether you choose a male or female goat, it should be dehorned. Some strains of goats are born without horns, or polled. Horn buds appear a few days after birth in goats that are not polled. The easiest and most humane time to remove horns is during the first two-weeks of life. However, goats can be dehorned as adults. At any time, a veterinarian should perform this procedure.

Goat Health

For the most part, goats are hardy animals with broad tolerances for heat and cold. However, they must be provided with shelter from wind and rain. Young animals, in particular, are susceptible to pneumonia. In general, goats suffer from few diseases, but in rare cases may contract Brucellosis (Undulant Fever) and Tuberculosis from infected animals. The two major disease concerns in goats are Caseous Lymphadenitis (chronic abscesses) and Caprine Arthritis/Encephalitis (CAE). Both these diseases are infectious and may be transmitted in the milk. Caseous Lymphadenitis can be transmitted to humans. There is no treatment for either of these diseases. It is important, therefore, to ask for proof that the goat you are buying has been tested for both these diseases.

The most common health problem in goats is internal parasites. Internal parasites are ingested by goats grazing infected pasture. Depending on the severity of the infestation (generally referred to as parasite load) goats may show few or no signs of illness, or may suffer from a variety of signs such as weight loss (or failure to gain weight), dull and/or rough hair coat, and diarrhea. Goats, which appear to be "poor doers," i.e., consume large amounts of feed but still appear thin, may suffer from a heavy parasite load. You will need to consult with your veterinarian regarding appropriate parasite control programs.

Summary

Keeping a goat as a pet or 4-H project can be a fun and rewarding experience. Most goat owners are devoted to their animals and will readily expound on the joys of ownership. Goats are clean by nature, intelligent, affectionate, and versatile. They require little in terms of feeding and health care, but do require adequate space and lots of activity. With proper care and management, your goat should live 12 to 15 years. Goats are normally quite gentle, and so make an ideal introduction for children to farm animals. Goat milk is wholesome and, for some people, easier to digest than cow’s milk. For those who are inclined toward handcrafts, mohair and cashmere fiber are an added bonus of goat ownership. For additional information, contact your local cooperative extension office or public library. Also, a number of good information sources may be found on the web: Langston University’s goat extension, North Carolina State University, Purdue University, Texas A&M University, and many, many more.