Myotonic Goats - An American Breed

There are some strange animals around the world and one of them is the 'fainting' goat. Like another strange animal in the world, the edible dormouse, the name catches the attention at once.

The myotonic goat is one of the truly American goat breeds. America doesn't have many indigenous goat breeds but the myotonic goat is native to Tennessee. The breed has a number of common names, some of which are: fainting goat, nervous goat, Texas wooden leg goat or Texas peg-leg goat. These strange names come from the habit of the animals of suddenly stiffening up and falling over at any sudden, unexpected stimulus. The animals don't actually faint as they don't lose consciousness as the term 'fainting goat' is a misnomer.

The more scientific name is Myotonic goat. There are now two strains of the breed with those in Texas being larger and more heavily muscled. They also have more spectacular fainting spells!

Fainting GoatCredit: Wikimedia

Myotonic goats were taken to the hill country of Texas in the 1950s. Selective breeding for meat production has resulted in larger animals. They have a high meat to bone ratio and yield tender, succulent meat. The myotonic goat has also been crossed with the Boer goat with excellent results.

The goats suffer from a condition called 'myotonia congenita'. A recessive gene is responsible for the fainting attacks. When startled, a neuromuscular condition causes the contraction of the muscles of the rear legs and neck. These muscles 'lock up' and the afflicted animal falls over. The legs extend stiffly (see the image) but after a short period, the animal gets up and continues merrily on its way as though nothing has happened. Some even learn to lean against a support when their muscles freeze up. They then shuffle off stiffly. Depending on the age, breed and level of fright, the goat may go completely rigid or may just stiffen slightly. Luckily the condition is painless and the episode is over in roughly ten seconds.

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The more muscled the animal, the greater the stiffening. The second half of the binomial name, 'congenita', indicates that the condition is inherited. Myotonic symptoms are not confined to goats. Some dog breeds (eg the Chow Chow), tumbler pigeons, sheep, mice and humans can display similar symptoms. Myotonia is induced in some humans by cholesterol lowering drugs.

Myotonia is not a fault of the central nervous system but takes place in the muscle fibre. It is not considered a defect as no other body functions are affected. Once the episode passes the animal goes back to its normal activities.

Apart from its myotonia congenita, the breed has some fine characteristics. They breed aseasonally so may even kid twice a year. Multiple births are common. Does sometimes hide their kids for several days. They have plenty of milk but produce excellent meat as well. Because they don't jump or climb very well they are easier to contain than some breeds. And they live long, productive lives with a lifespan of around twelve years.

Goats selected for meat production should have deep chests and well-fleshed rumps. The most common colour is black and white but multi-coloured animals are common. It is a slightly smaller than standard breeds, generally 17 to 25 inches at the shoulder and weighing between 27 and 79 kg.

The breed has a short to medium length head. The nose is wide, flat and round, with the profile straight as opposed to the convex or 'Roman' profile of some breeds such as the Anglo-Nubian. They are mostly quite stocky and certainly not a tall breed. A feature is the large, prominent eyes which sit in high sockets and bulge from the skull a little.

The ears are not as large as the Nubian and Spanish breeds but longer than the Swiss breeds. Most have short coats which tend to bulk up in winter with some producing a great deal of cashmere.

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Two theories have been put forward for the origin of the breed. One suggests that a spontaneous mutation occurred in 1885, resulting in the passing on of the 'fainting' gene. A second explanation is that a farm worker, John Tinsley from Nova Scotia brought a buck and three or four does with him to Marshall County Tennessee sometime around 1880. The following year he sold the goats to Dr H H Mayberry then left the district. Sources state that today's Myotonic goats trace back to Tinsley's goats. Marshall County has a Goats, Music and More Festival each year in Lewisburg and the City Hall in that town is graced with a statue of a fainting goat.

Fainting goats served a useful purpose in flocks of sheep as wolves or foxes would be more inclined to go to the easy prey lying on the ground than the more valuable sheep.

The breed has good resistance to parasites. They rarely need concentrates, maintaining good condition on browse and pasture. Like most goat breeds, they are sure-footed and at home whatever the terrain.

The breed has been added to Slow Food's Ark of Taste. Ark of Taste promotes consumption of foods that rely on particular flora or fauna for its taste and appeal. Some of the 'old' breeds need special preparation in cooking or perhaps just longer, slower cooking. By promoting these foods, it is hoped that fewer of the old, less popular livestock breeds will be in danger of disappearing from our farms.

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has the myotonic goat listed in its 'watch' section. The interests of the breed are looked after by the International Fainting Goat Association.

Myotonic goats are sociable and good with children. They are excellent mothers and are calm and easily trained. Their quirky 'falling over' habit gives them great novelty value and they have become very popular as pets. They are ideal for smallholdings and family farmlets.

Being slightly smaller they are easier to handle when hooves need trimming or medications need to be administered. And they are never any trouble to catch! Simply clap your hands and you can have your pick of all the goats lying on the ground! And when you've finished with that individual, clap your hands again to go on to the next.