Fainting Goats (aka Myotonic Goats): History, Myths, and Facts

Episode 67
For the Love of Goats

Tennessee Fainting Goat in a Florida Field

It’s probably safe to say that everyone has heard of fainting goats, which are more correctly called myotonic goats, and they don’t actually faint.

Today we are separating fact from fiction in our conversation with Phil Sponenberg, DVM, Ph.D. of Virginia Tech who has been breeding myotonics for 30 years. He is also the technical advisor for The Livestock Conservancy, which has the myotonic goat on the “recovering” section of the Conservation Priority List, where the breed was originally considered critically endangered.

Dr. Sponenberg discusses the history of the myotonic goat and what exactly is a “fainting goat.” Although you can milk any goat, this breed is primarily a meat goat.

If you’ve thought about goats but were scared off by the idea that they are loud and hard to keep fenced in, then a myotonic might be the breed for you. They are quieter than some breeds, and that same medical condition that causes them to faint also means that they can’t jump or climb fences.

But if you are strictly considering the myotonic because you wanted to be entertained by fainting goats, then you might want to reconsider because “fainting” really doesn’t happen that often.

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Transcript – Fainting Goats

Introduction 0:03
For the love of goats! We are talking about everything goat. Whether you’re a goat owner, a breeder, or just a fan of these wonderful creatures, we’ve got you covered. And now, here is Deborah Niemann.

Deborah Niemann 0:19
Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode. This is going to be a really fun episode for a lot of people, because I think everyone has heard of fainting goats. Even if you don’t have goats, you’ve heard of fainting goats. And they’re actually officially called “Myotonic goats.” And today, we are talking to Phil Sponenberg of Virginia Tech, who is a veterinarian and a professor there, and he’s been breeding Myotonics for 30 years. It sounds strange to me—and this is one of the things we’re gonna talk about is—how a goat that seems to be something everyone’s heard of could have been on the brink of extinction just a few decades ago. They used to be on the critical list of the Livestock Conservancy, but they are recovering thanks to lots of really dedicated breeders like Dr. Sponenberg. So, welcome to the show today!

Phil Sponenberg 1:13
Good to be here. Thank you.

Deborah Niemann 1:16
This is gonna be so much fun to talk about these goats, because sometimes I tell people I have goats, and they’re like, “Oh, do they faint?” Like, people just think this is… That just, goats faint. It’s just a goat thing. And it’s really not. It’s a very unique thing that Myotonics do. So, let’s just get that part out of the way right off the bat. Why do Myotonic goats faint? And what is that, really?

Phil Sponenberg 1:38
Well, they really don’t faint. When they get startled, they stiffen up. The myotonia is actually myotonia congenita, which is a medical condition. And the cell membranes around the skeletal muscle cells are different than animals that lack this. And you actually see the same condition in a lot of different species, including in people. And it’s rare in people. But, that’s how we know that it’s painless. So, it’s painless. But when they stiffen up their muscles—you know, when they move their muscles really, really quickly—they just can’t relax quickly. And so, the muscle basically stays contracted for a few seconds, and then they will eventually recover and go on their merry way. So, it actually turns out to be quite useful. They don’t climb, and they don’t jump. And so, they’re actually the ideal goat, because they’re really easy to maintain that way. In addition, since they came out of Tennessee, originally—as near as we can tell—they actually are well adapted to the environment. So, in addition to the muscle condition, they’re also, you know, quiet, good mothers, and they’re also real well adapted to the environment.

Deborah Niemann 2:46
And how did they wind up to be so rare just a few decades ago?

Phil Sponenberg 2:51
They were just overlooked. I mean, it was just a local thing that occurred in Tennessee. The breeders weren’t organized; there was no need to go anywhere with it. And then, in the exotic animal boom of the 1980s, some people started paying attention to them. And then, the whole thing sort of goes two different directions. You know, one is the novelty market. You know, a really, really stiff goat—small, pretty. And then the other was actually: The muscle condition makes them more heavily muscled than a normal goat. And so, their meat-to-bone ratio is about 4 to 1 instead of the usual goat—3 to 1. So, they actually do make sense as a meat goat.

Deborah Niemann 3:32
So, are they mostly raised today for meat or for pets?

Phil Sponenberg 3:36
All of the above. And so, if people are interested, they need to figure out their own goals and figure out which direction to go. Some people select them for show. The shows are becoming more and more and more common. And some people select them for pets, some people select them for commercial meat production, and everything in between. So, it actually does fit a number of different niches within the goat breed market.

Deborah Niemann 4:03
So, how much do the adults weigh?

Phil Sponenberg 4:06
Well, that depends on who you ask. The small ones are actually probably a true dwarf goat. I have heard people advertise 175-pound bucks; I suspect that there was a lot of fat on those. And, some of these animals that are advertised at those weights… When I come home and look at my own, they’re just as big, and my biggest doe is probably 110 pounds. So some of it, you wonder if that’s not really all that accurate. Some of it probably is. But most of the does, I’d say, probably range between 75 to 110 pounds. Something like that. A few over that. A few under that. Something like that. And then the bucks are correspondingly sized bigger than the does. So they’re not huge, but they’re not tiny.

Deborah Niemann 4:55
Okay. So, it doesn’t sound like it’s a whole lot bigger than a Nigerian Dwarf, which is a dairy goat. So what is it exactly that makes the Myotonic goats, or fainting goats, more of a meat-goat type?

Phil Sponenberg 5:10
Why, it’s that thick muscling and thick conformation, basically.

Deborah Niemann 5:15
Okay. Has anyone ever done milk testing with them? Do you know what kind of milk production they have?

Phil Sponenberg 5:21
Nobody’s done formal milk testing. A few people do milk them. And, you know, just word of mouth is that the protein content is pretty high, so the cheese production is pretty good. But again, I mean, that would be moderate lactation, so you wouldn’t get the lactation of a Myotonic that you would out of a specialized dairy goat, just because the selection isn’t there. But, I mean, you know, you can milk anything. Right? So, and as is typical of goats that are not selected for dairy production, the solids are pretty high. The overall production is low, but the solids are pretty high.

Deborah Niemann 5:55
Okay. And do they typically have twins?

Phil Sponenberg 5:59
That’s gonna vary. A lot of them have twins. Somebody just posted something about quintuplets. So, the most we’ve ever had here is three. They can count to three pretty well; I don’t know if they can count to five. Our usual pattern is that the first timers usually have a single. Some of the first timers have twins. And then twins tend to be fairly routine after that, with the occasional triplet. Some of that depends on the system. You know, our system is mostly forage-based, so they’re not going to be pushed for that extra kid that somebody that’s feeding a lot of grain might get. So, it just varies.

Deborah Niemann 6:33
What is their temperament like?

Phil Sponenberg 6:36
They’re fairly quiet. We had just weaned kids one year, and a friend that is a Nubian breeder came. And I found the noise deafening. And, she then turned to me and said, “Why is it so quiet?” Yeah, so I mean, they are quiet. You know, basically, if we have a goat making noise, we usually have to go figure out, “Okay, what’s happening? Why is a goat making noise?” So they are quiet. They’re fairly easy to handle. As is typical of any goats, some of them are pretty bossy to each other. And so, we have discovered over the years that occasionally, we will have a herd queen who rules by terror. She’s a terrorist. I mean, she’s… Anything gets in her way, she’s gonna beat it up. But then, we have some goats that have been queens, and I don’t know how they do it, but they never resort to violence. And so—and they get to stay forever. I mean, because they’re worth their weight in gold. I mean, everybody behaves, everybody’s under control, and there’s no violence. And so, that’s what we prefer. But I can’t look you in the eye and tell you that none of them are violent or extremists, because some of them are.

Phil Sponenberg 7:49
We had three of the original group, we called them “the three hag sisters.” And anybody got their way, they got out of their way real fast. I mean, they were just horrible. In fact, we tipped the horns on one of them just because it kept us from getting too many injuries. I mean, beautiful, productive goat, but really, really bad attitude—so bad that her daughters refused to hang out with her. You know, they took one look at this and they said, “Look, this is no way to live. We’re out of here.” And so, any of us who raise goats knows that usually the families all stick together. Her family? “No, we’re out of here. Soon as we’re weaned, we’re on our own.”

Deborah Niemann 8:24
Interesting. That’s very interesting personalities there.

Deborah Niemann 8:29
You mentioned tipping horns. And so, like, with dairy goats, they are typically disbudded, and meat goats usually have their horns. Is there a standard with the Myotonics?

Phil Sponenberg 8:41
No. In fact, in our herd, we have both polled and horned goats. We like to keep a combination. There are advantages to the horns; they actually do help the goat thermo-regulate. So, we’re in Virginia. On a hot day, we might notice that polled goats are in the shade and the horned goats are still on the sun. And actually, on a fairly warm day, if you feel the horns on a goat, they’re gonna be really, really hot. And that’s how they’re radiating heat. A second advantage is that they’re useful handles. So, when I have to catch a goat to move it from point A to point B, it’s harder with a polled goat than it is with a horned goat. You know, but I mean, we try to keep both around. Some people prefer one or the other. A lot of people do disbud them—not everybody. We’ve had very, very few—if any—horn-related injuries. I can’t think of any—I mean, other than just the usual violence that goes on. But… I take that back. We did have one horned buck that had learned how to catch legs, and he was pretty bad. And that’s always a risk with any horned goat, but it seems to be related to the individual and not the fact that they do have horns. I realize in a dairy situation or something closely managed, people may not want horns. In a meat goat situation, they’re a little bit more useful.

Deborah Niemann 9:55
So, with the registry, there’s no requirement, then, for them to be disbudded or anything like that?

Phil Sponenberg 10:02
No. There’s no requirement for either polled or horned or disbudding. None.

Deborah Niemann 10:07
And… Because, when you mentioned some of the, like, huge size variations and things like that, how long has the registry been around? And do you know how purebred are the goats? Or is there some other breed influence in there?

Phil Sponenberg 10:24
If there is other breed influence, it seems to be fairly minimal. Now, the breed started in Tennessee, and early in the 50s it went to Texas; there is a little bit difference in style between the Texas goats and the Tennessee goats. The size overlaps between the both of them. The registry’s been active probably since the early 90s. I’d have to look that up, but… I should know, because I helped start the registry. But I can’t keep that in my head.

Deborah Niemann 10:55
I understand.

Phil Sponenberg 10:56
But, early 90s. And, the goal there was the overall breed type and the stiffness, and not necessarily the size, so there’s no real strict size limit to it since the size always varied. Now that said, if half of the rumors are true—and you know, probably some of them are—you know, some of the bigger goats may have something else in them. Some of the really, really tiny goats may have something else in them. So, you know, there is a possibility for that.

Phil Sponenberg 11:23
Generally, when you crossbreed, you lose the stiffness in the first generation, so the average casual breeder would just give up after that point. That’s not to say that somebody with a real definite goal might not put something else in there. But as far as we can tell, there’s nothing else in there.

Deborah Niemann 11:40
That’s interesting, that you said that the stiffening usually goes away with the first generation, because one of the interesting things about the Nigerian Dwarf breed standard is that it says “fainting is a disqualification.” Which kind of leads us all to think that, like, “Oh, there must have been some fainting goat genetics back at some point with the Nigerians since that’s in there,” because, like, I can’t think of any other reason why that would be in the breed standard.

Phil Sponenberg 12:12
Yes, there may have been some crossing both directions in the early days. And it may still pop out in the Nigerian as the occasional stiff kid. There may be other goat breeds internationally with myotonia. I have heard rumors, but they’re very, very rare. And so, as far as we know, this is a uniquely American situation, uniquely American product. So, you know, I mean, if it’s starting to show up in your breed, you scratch your head and think, “Huh, there’s probably a reason for that.”

Deborah Niemann 12:43
I don’t think it is. And I’ve had them for 20 years. I just always thought it was weird that that was in there—and maybe it’s been taken out. I haven’t looked at it lately. But I know it used to be in there, because it would make everyone kind of scratch their head about “Why is that in there?”

Deborah Niemann 12:58
So, you mentioned earlier that they are actually pretty easy on fencing because of their unique muscles. Can you expand on that a little bit more? Because that’s one of the big reasons people don’t want goats, because they’re like—

Phil Sponenberg 13:14
Yeah, yeah.

Deborah Niemann 13:15
—”They’re too hard to keep fenced in!”

Phil Sponenberg 13:17
Now, the stiffness varies, but basically, they can’t jump, and they can’t climb very well at all. And so, they’re easy to fence in. Now, that said, you know, we use electric fencing, and that keeps them off the fence. Now, we did have older bucks that developed a hobby of, you know, worrying a fence. They were horned, and they would just worry a fence to death, basically. So… And that’s actually one reason why we just use younger bucks now. I mean, it’s easier for genetic management; it’s also easier on the fencing. So, if you mean, “Yes, can they tear up a fence?” Yeah, absolutely. But, they can’t jump and they can’t go over it. So, you know, for most people, that’s a success. And, you know, basically, we use… Our little working pen is basically hog panels baling twined together, which is a fairly low barrier. And so, some people that raise Spanish goats or something like that may show up and say, “Well, gosh, this works?” And it’s like, “Yeah, absolutely. You know, they can’t jump over.” So, it just makes it a little bit easier. I’m fairly tall, so I can actually step over it, so it makes it easy for me because I can get in and out and the goats can’t. So.

Deborah Niemann 14:22
Wow, that’s amazing. Your fence is so short that you can step over it and the goats can’t jump over it?

Phil Sponenberg 14:28

Deborah Niemann 14:30
Wow. You’re not kidding when you say they can’t jump! That’s like… If I could step over it, my kids can jump over it.

Phil Sponenberg 14:37
No, no. You need Myotonic goats.

Deborah Niemann 14:41
Yeah, that does sound a lot easier. Okay. So just really simple, the shortest woven wire that they sell would work, then.

Phil Sponenberg 14:51
Yes. The other advantages: They’re parasite-resistant. And Tennessee State is doing some research that’s still in the early stages, but so far they’ve been at least equal to the Kiko, which is specifically selected for parasite resistance. And then, we use the FAMACHA system and keep records. And we do have to deworm some goats; we don’t use it as a primary selection criterion, but we do have some goats that have basically never been dewormed. And this is in relatively humid Virginia. So.

Deborah Niemann 15:20
So, it sounds like they’re really pretty healthy goats and everything. But one of the things that I remember hearing about them a long time ago, when we were first getting started, is that some people would keep a couple of them in their sheep flocks or other goat herds because they were basically the sacrificial goat for predators because of their tendency to stiffen up and fall over. Is that real? Or, do you have to worry more about predators with them?

Phil Sponenberg 15:50
Okay. It is real. And they were used for that, especially in Texas on the exotic ranches and things like that. However, if you have predators, and if you have goats, it doesn’t matter if they are Myotonic or not; the predators are going to get some. They might get the Myotonic ones first, but the idea that these are sitting ducks for predators… That’s any goat. Any sheep. And so, you know, basically, predator control, predator avoidance, whatever you use—we use livestock guard dogs. And that’s why, you know, because… I mean, but we’d have that regardless of any breed of goat or sheep that we had. It’s not related to the myotonia. That’s just good management and good goat husbandry, is taking care of the predator problem.

Deborah Niemann 16:35
That’s definitely good advice for anybody that’s got goats. So, if somebody is thinking of getting goats, who would this breed be perfect for?

Phil Sponenberg 16:47
Everybody. They’re easy maintenance. And they’re really, really good mothers. You know, basically, I haven’t had one… I’m trying to think if I’m telling the truth here. But I don’t think I’ve had one that was a bad mother. And some of them… We have one that was such an extremely good mother that she would steal kids from somebody else. So we actually… I mean, there is such a thing as too much maternal ability in a goat. But I mean, it was manageable. And she actually kidded up until she was 17 years old. So, she did a good job. So yes, longevity, and they’re fairly disease resistant. Now, obviously, there’s specific goat diseases like hoof rot and Caseous lymphadenitis that you don’t want to bring in. But yeah, they’ve been pretty resistant, and you know, efficient on forage, efficient with a little bit of grain. We do feed a little bit of grain. Good mothers. Quiet—and quiet both in the sense of usually their interactions with each other, but also just they don’t vocalize a whole lot. So they’re not…. They’re not Nubians. But I mean, people love Nubians, and Nubians are great.

Phil Sponenberg 17:47
And this is actually important, because each breed is a good fit for the specific person. Right goat, right situation. For us it’s the right situation, because they navigate our pastures pretty well. They’re easy to contain. They’re good mothers. They’re quiet. They’re parasite resistant. And so, we just don’t have to worry too much about them.

Deborah Niemann 18:06
You mentioned that they did well in hot climates. Do they also do well in cold climates?

Phil Sponenberg 18:12
As far as I know, yes. And we do get fairly cold winters, and ours actually produce—not all of them. But we do have goats that produce enough cashmere that I actually comb some of the goats out, get the cashmere dehaired, and I spin, so I will spin, and it makes exquisite yarn. I mean, it really, really fine, really, really soft. So yeah, this time of year, they’re fuzzy and they’re beautiful and cold-adapted. It rained here yesterday; it was about 40 degrees, and they were just out in it. Some of them think they’re gonna melt, you know, if they get wet. Some, you know, they finally had to sit down and have a big meeting and someone told the other ones, “No, you’re not going to melt. This is gonna be okay. You’re gonna get out there and eat.” But yeah, they’ve been cold-resistant.

Deborah Niemann 18:53
They sound like such a awesome goat. And they’re so popular in terms of, like, everybody knows what a fainting goat is. Do you have any theories about why they’re not more popular? I mean, it seems like they would just… Like, that would be really the ideal goat for so many people looking for pets or meat or, you know, even now you’re talking about cashmere. That’s cool.

Phil Sponenberg 19:18
Actually, I think that’s why they’re on the recovering list instead of the critical list. You know, I think that it finally caught on. And Richard Browning over there at Tennessee State, he recently added those to his breeds of meat goats that he’s comparing. And so, they’re actually gaining more and more attention, serious attention, on the production side. And I think that that’s gonna also affect it. We actually do sell goats for meat, and we do sell them through the just normal commercial channels. And they’re very, very well accepted. I mean, I do not have to go to any extra effort to sell extra kids. You know, there’s a ready market, and it actually it hits the top end of the market because of their conformation, because of the way they look to the buyers.

Deborah Niemann 20:06
So, if somebody is at this point, and they’re like, “Wow, you have sold me on them. I think I want to get Myotonic goats.” Is there any reason that somebody should not get them?

Phil Sponenberg 20:18
Well, no. I’m a goat breeder! Again, it depends on your goals. And to us, I mean, people are always fascinated. “Oh yeah, fainting goats. Oh yeah, fainting goats. Well, how often do they do it?” And yet, basically, we will go weeks and not see a goat faint. You know, because we don’t do that. I mean, you know, we don’t startle them, we don’t do anything like that. Now, kidding is coming up next week, you know. And every now and again, I gotta catch a goat. And I know that if I move really, really fast, I’ve got a five-second window in which I can catch that goat. So, if you’re interested in a freak show, then forget it, you know. They have more dignity than that, you know. But I mean, you know, I find that goats are dignified, and I find that they work well, they do well, for us.

Phil Sponenberg 21:02
I very, very rarely have to trim feet, for example. And so, you know, some people will come—this is going to be really, really biased. Okay? But some people will go, “Well, where’s your Boer goat?” You know, thinking I should be crossing with Boer goats. And frankly, I personally have not seen a Boer goat whose feet I liked. I do not want to trim goat feet. So, you know, my goats do get some attention to conformation, you know, so then we try to make sure that the pasterns are set and that the fetlocks are upright and everything that a good goat should have. And yes, some of them do lack in that. But you know, but if you have a well-conformed goat, it just becomes that much more trouble-free and easy to manage.

Deborah Niemann 21:42
Yeah. I don’t think anybody likes to trim feet. And in fact, last year, I had a Kiko breeder on here who, that’s one of the things she selects for is really good hooves. And she said she had a buck one time who only had to have his hooves trimmed once in his whole life. And she was like, “That was great!” So, I mean, really, who wants to trim goats’ hooves?

Phil Sponenberg 22:08
Not me. And, we have several that, you know, basically never get trimmed. Period. Now, we are in southwest Virginia, so we have rocks. Rocks are a great thing, you know, because they do actually help wear their hooves down. But it’s been fairly trouble-free.

Deborah Niemann 22:22
Yeah. Well, this has been great! This has been very interesting. I’m glad you mentioned the fact that you can go weeks without seeing a goat faint, because I think some people might have been thinking that, like, “Oh, that would be so much entertainment to have a fainting goat.” But it sounds like chickens are probably more entertaining if that’s all you want.

Phil Sponenberg 22:41
Chickens are entertaining. We’ll give them that.

Deborah Niemann 22:45
So, is there anything else that you wanted to say about them before we wrap up for today?

Phil Sponenberg 22:51
Well, not really. I mean, in the casual public, I mean, they’re seen as this sort of freak-show trivial thing. And actually, when you start taking a look into it, they’re a really, really seriously good production goat. And, you know, with my work in breed conservation, I mean, frankly, I went to go visit breeders first thinking that the whole story was bogus, that there wasn’t a breed here, and that we could just get them off the list and go on our merry way. Then you went there, and you looked at them, and “No, there is a breed there.” I mean, they all have a similar look, they all have a similar way to do things, and yes, there was a breed there. And at that time, we got really pretty concerned about its future. And it’s just rewarding now to see that the future is much more secure.

Deborah Niemann 23:29
Yeah, that is! This is really exciting. And so, it’s great that they’re now on the recovering list of the conservation priority list for the Livestock Conservancy, and it’s totally because of breeders like you who are so committed to preserving them. So, thank you for that. And thank you for joining us today! This has been really interesting. I think people will really enjoy this.

Phil Sponenberg 23:50
You’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.

Deborah Niemann 23:53
And that’s it for today’s show. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to hit the “subscribe” button so that you don’t miss any episodes. To see show notes, you can always visit ForTheLoveOfGoats.com, and you can follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/LoveGoatsPodcast. See you again next time. Bye for now!

fainting goats in a field

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