Goats are probably the second most common barnyard pet with chickens coming in first. Although I jokingly refer to goats as vegetarian dogs because of their friendly nature, their needs are very different. For years I’ve been responding to emails and blog comments from new goat owners whose problems could have been avoided if they had the right information before they bought their first goats. Here is what you need to know before you make the commitment to become a goat owner.
Goats are long lived
The oldest goat on my farm right now is 16 years old, which is a little on the older side, but it is not unusual for goats to live 12 to 15 years. I have heard of one occasionally surviving to 18 or 19. Becoming a goat owner is not a short-term commitment, and it is not always easy to find a good home for unwanted goats.
Goats are herd animals
Herd animals live in groups in nature. That means you can’t have just one herd animal, and other species don’t count. So, it’s not a good idea to have a goat with a sheep, a cow, a horse, a rabbit, or a chicken. Yes, people have asked me to sell them a goat as a companion to all of these other critters. They simply do not speak the same language. Sure there are a few success stories out there, but I have heard far more horror stories from people who bought one goat. Lone goats are the world’s best escape artists, and they will find holes in your fence that you never knew existed, and then they can tap dance on your car, poop on your front porch, get into your horse pasture and get kicked through the air, or wander into the road and get hit by a car. If you are still tempted to buy a single goat, read this.
Wethers make the best pets
Many people ask me if they should get bucks (male goats) or does (female goats) if they do not want to breed goats. The answer is neither. Intact bucks pee on themselves, and they may even pee on you if you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, they are not messy. They actually have amazing directional control, and they will pee on their faces during breeding season. They will also butt heads with other bucks, even when does are not present. One year we finished breeding early in the fall, so we put our bucks across the creek, far away from the does, hoping that would curb their head butting and help them to focus more on eating. It didn’t help.
Female goats come into heat about every 21 days if they are not bred. Some does are quiet. Some does scream like the world is coming to an end. If you have a breed that only comes into heat in the fall, you may only have to deal with this for five months or so. However, if you have a breed that comes into heat year round, your neighbors may be hating you every 21 days.
Wethers are castrated males, and reputable breeders will castrate the goats before selling. Good quality bucks cost hundreds of dollars, so reputable breeders don’t sell them with their testicles intact for $50 to $100. Not only are wethers cheaper than bucks and does, which can be bred, but they are also not hormonal. They don’t pee on themselves or fight as much as bucks. They don’t come into heat and scream like female goats.
Buy goats only from reputable breeders
Even if you only want pets, it is a good idea to only buy goats from reputable breeders or responsible owners. They will be able to answer all of your questions about feeding, housing, and general goat care.
When you buy from a reputable breeder, they will have already disbudded and castrated the baby goats before selling them. They should also have tested their herd for diseases, such as CAE, Johnes, and CL.
If you are buying baby goats that are bottle-fed, they should have been bottle-fed for at least a week before you pick them up. Some of the most frustrating emails I get are from people who purchased kids that have been nursing for their entire life and are pulled from their mother the day of the sale and are sold as bottle babies. Of course, the kids have no idea what to do with the bottle and just scream like they’re being poisoned.
Kids should be nursed for a minimum of two months before being sold unless they are well established as a bottle-feeding baby. Ask the seller to give the kid a bottle in front of you, and if the kid does not grab the nipple and start sucking with no help, do NOT take it home. Having helped many new goat owners who have unknowingly purchased dam-raised kids and tried to switch them to a bottle, I can tell you this is not an experience you want to have.
I’ve heard the saddest stories from people who bought goats at sale barns. Many people take their problems to sale barns to get rid of them. This means you could wind up with a big vet bill or a dead goat or two rather quickly. Even if someone takes healthy animals to a sale barn, it could pick up a disease, such as Johnes, from a goat, sheep, or cow at the sale barn. If you are there, you could get Johnes on your shoes if you step in the manure of an infected animal, and then you could bring it back to your farm and give it to your goats, sheep, or cows.
Housing for pet goats
No, your pet goats cannot live in your house. Although my daughter had great luck teaching baby goats to pee on a towel, they also thought they should pee on the bathroom rug and any clothes left on the floor. And there is no teaching them to poop outside. They just let the poop fly whenever the urge strikes.
Although it is not true that goats eat tin cans, they do like to taste everything just to be sure they aren’t missing out on anything awesome. That means that electrical cords are a real danger to them, as they could electrocute themselves. Some goats have been known to eat plastic bags, which can cause an obstruction, which will cause death.
They also love to eat paper because they are browsers, which means they prefer to eat trees and bushes rather than grass. And paper is made from trees, so it’s basically like us eating fast food. It’s not really real food, but paper tastes similar to their favorite food, so they’ll eat it. My daughter used to joke that someday she would have to honestly tell her teacher that her goat had eaten her homework.
If you only have pet goats, a three-sided shelter works well in most parts of the U.S. Although our does come into the barn every night for milking in the evening and morning, our bucks live in a three-sided shelter, and we in Illinois. We only bring them into the barn if we are expecting a blizzard or temperatures below zero. The open side of a three-sided shelter should be open to the direction opposite the prevailing winds in winter. In Illinois, that means the shelters are open to the south because most winter winds are blowing from the north.
Goats do NOT need a heated or insulated shelter. In fact, if you put them in an insulated shelter, you could kill them with your “kindness.” It is impossible to keep ammonia levels from building up to dangerous levels in an insulated shelter. And you cannot count on your wimpy human nose to let you know when it is a problem. Ammonia can start to damage lungs before the human nose can smell it. So, if you smell ammonia, it is already beyond dangerously high.
Goats in winter stay warm because they grow a thick coat of cashmere. If you have ever had a cashmere coat or sweater, you know how warm it is. This is why goats look fuzzier in winter than in summer. They also stay warm by cuddling up with each other, which is why it is important that they never be alone.
Using straw as bedding is also much warmer than shavings. Availability of straw or shavings can vary depending upon where you live, but if it’s cold in your area, and you have straw available, it is a better option for insulating goats from the cold ground and helping them to stay warm in winter.
Feeding pet goats
Wethers are very easy keepers. They just need pasture or browse (bushes) in summer and grass hay in winter if the pasture is dead and frozen. No alfalfa, please. It is too high in calcium, which can lead to zinc deficiency. Wethers also do not need grain, which is high in phosphorus and can cause urinary stones.
One reason female goats don’t make the best pets is because if they are not being bred, they may have trouble maintaining a healthy weight. About 12 years ago I sold three does to a teenage girl, and she kept in touch with me all these years. She had an ongoing struggle keeping those does from becoming obese, and they were only eating pasture and hay.
Other than plenty of clean water, the only other thing goats need is free choice goat minerals. Do not get minerals labeled “for sheep and goats” because it will not have enough copper in it to keep goats healthy, so be sure to get one that is labeled for goats only.
Fencing for pet goats
If you have four or less goats, you don’t need an elaborate fence. You can just put together four 16-foot livestock panels, which can be moved around the yard as temporary fencing. Rotational grazing is actually a great way to utilize pasture, as well as control internal parasites in goats because the goats are constantly leaving their toilet behind them as you move the livestock panels to new areas.
Find a local goat vet
Although goats are very healthy animals when given proper care, and many will never need to see a vet, you should be sure you have a goat vet in your area in case of emergency. It comes as a surprise to many people that most vets do not see goats. Two-thirds of vets limit their practice to companion animals. Even vets who will see goats may not have a lot of experience with them. It is not unusual for goat owners to drive an hour or two to see a vet with goat experience. Please do not try to talk your dog’s vet into seeing your goats. As a vet said to me many years ago, they won’t be doing you any favors by saying yes. And based on stories I’ve heard of dog and cat vets treating goats, I’m glad that my dog’s vet refused to see my goats.
For more information …
Of course the information in this article is only the beginning. You need to educate yourself about goats before buying them so that you can give them the best possible life and save yourself a lot of heartache and vet bills at the same time. You can learn more by visiting my Goat Guide for Beginners, which lists a couple dozen articles about all facets of goat care. My book, Raising Goats Naturally, was revised and updated in 2018 with the latest research and has 300+ pages of information.
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