The Goat that can Eat Anything – and other Mythological Creatures

Without a doubt, the "Omnivorous Goat" is the mother of all insidious goat myths.

May 15, 2012 (published)

Photo courtesy of Karen James

Most pet owners seem to have a fairly good handle on dog and cat keeping – though I’m still not sure why anyone thinks that a dog really cares how well dressed he is. The majority of horse owners have grasped that a horse is not, in fact, a large dog and have at least a rudimentary notion of how to feed and house that half-ton lawnmower. Even alpaca owners are better educated about the needs of their long-necked teddy bears than the majority of veterinarians.

It all falls apart when we consider the goat. For reasons that aren’t at all clear, the goat has been the victim of some of the most pernicious animal husbandry myths that a technological age can provide. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if someone told me they read on a message board about a new breed of flying, purple, people-eating goats that have only one horn.

Several factors are conspiring against the poor caprine creatures (dogs are canine, cats are feline, sheep are ovine, and goats are caprine).

  1. Goats are classified as a “minor species.” This designation has nothing to do with age, though the vast majority of goats are ineligible to vote, and everything to do with money. Goats - and sheep - are not major economic elements in U.S. livestock production. From the perspective of the pharmaceutical companies, this means that goats aren’t worth many research dollars.  There are very few (less than a handful in common use) drugs or vaccines that are federally labeled for use in goats. Great! No big, bad pharma to get in the way, right? Goat husbandry can remain pure. (Hmmm…. Not a good sentence to be taken out of context.) Unfortunately, whether we like it or not, most owner-education resources in the livestock and pet industries are driven by drug dollars. This is the reason that you don’t see a lot of glossy goat-wellness flyers or “Vaccinate your Goat” campaigns. Cui bono? Who profits? In this case, only the goat, and he isn’t footing (hoofing?) the bill.
  2. National Geographic. Also Wild Kingdom, Planet Earth, and just about any other wild animal documentary you can think of. We see these wild goats living in deserts and impossible, rocky crags where the only growing thing seems to be a small scum of lichen, and we think, “Aha! Goats can survive on anything.”
  3. Goats lack an identity. In the U.S., people are often confused about goats. Though goat meat is becoming more popular in some regions, it tends to be off the radar of the bulk of Americans. Ditto goat milk. I have talked to people who were actually confused when informed the goat milk sold in cardboard quarts in the grocery store is the same stuff as that white liquid leaking out of their doe’s udder. And only the miniscule, but freakishly obsessive, community of fiber artists grasps that goats produce hair that can be turned into wearable stuff. (Angora or cashmere sweater, anyone?) However, despite our cultural confusion regarding goats, they have been raised as livestock for centuries.
    Welcome to the 21st century and the advent of a new creature – the PET goat! Ok, so it isn’t a new creature. Pet goats have the same basic needs as the commercially raised kind, but from a veterinary standpoint, they represent a whole new ball game. This brings me to the next issue in goat mythology…
  4. The Internet. Perhaps sensing a degree of uncertainty on the part of veterinarians trying to come to grips with the notion of a client willing to pay $1200 for a fracture repair on a $60 goat, goat groups and chat rooms have sprouted like mushrooms in the decaying forests of the Internet. Some of these groups, particularly those affiliated with college or county agricultural extension offices or with official breed organizations, can be quite good. However, there are goat sites out there that make YouTube and Facebook look like paragons of sourced journalism.
  5. Goat breeders. I hate to say this, because I have no desire to paint all who raise goats with the same brush.  However, I have had clients come to me with some of the most extraordinary notions about caring for their goats. When questioned, these same clients routinely swear up, down, and sideways that they are faithfully following the instructions of the breeder.

    The Goat at the Center of the Labyrinth (and other lesser-known myths)

    The Omnivorous Goat – Without a doubt, this is the mother of all insidious goat myths. This creature has several variants: the goat that won’t eat poisonous plants because of instinct, the goat that can eat anything including table scraps and tin cans, the goats that don’t need to be fed because they apparently draw nutrition from the aura of a dirt pasture.

    I’m not sure whether the blame falls on Disney, Warner Bros., National Geographic, or the Brothers Grimm, but the damage has been done. Without fail, nearly every time I have opened my mouth to utter “Let’s talk about nutrition” to a goat owner, I have been greeted with the response, “But goats can eat anything, can’t they?”

    Pardon me while I dig my forehead out of this wall.

    No, they cannot “eat anything.” Goats are not trash compactors. In the broadest designation, goats are herbivores. Translation: they eat plant stuff: not tin cans, not animal products (yes, your adult goat is vegan), and not Twinkies. More specifically, goats are ruminants. Like cattle, they have a four-chambered stomach. The rumen, the largest compartment, contains microbes that ferment the plant material and break down the cellulose (plant fiber) into volatile fatty acids (VFAs) that are the beneficial nutrients. In essence, when you put food in front of your goat, you are not feeding the goat, you are feeding the bacteria. Even more specifically, unlike their ruminant colleagues cattle and sheep, goats are browsers not grazers. This means that they are adapted to eat leaves and brush rather than grasses. This last trait explains why your kid’s 4-H goat ignored the lush lawn and decimated your rose bushes the last time he got into your front yard.

    Of these caprine dietary habits, possibly the one that most defines a goat’s menu options is its ruminant status. Remember, we are feeding the bacteria living in the goat’s rumen. Those bacteria like consistency. They are swimming about happily in their perfect rumen-juice (rumen liquor, really!) bath, and they do NOT like changes to that bathwater. Certain dietary changes unfortunately tend to drop the rumen pH (a measure of acidity and alkalinity) and making it more acidic, causing havoc among the bacteria who are now dying by the millions. These changes tend to be from the things that the goat likes and that humans think are nice: extra grain, feeding all grain or pellets when you run out of hay, dumping a load of grass clippings, old vegetables, or other landscaping remains into the goat pen, switching from “that nasty old grass hay” to a “nice, green alfalfa.”

    While goat nutritional needs vary depending on breed, age, use, and breeding status, there are some general guidelines that apply across the board.

    1. Maintain consistency. Those bacteria are set in their ways and respond poorly to sudden changes of any kind. If you need to switch forages or to add a concentrate (grain, etc.) to the diet, it is best to make the changes gradually over several weeks.
    2. Forage.Healthy rumen function relies upon a certain fiber length; the fibers of hay or plant stems rub on the rumen’s lining and promote the contractions that maintain a healthy environment for the bacteria. While there are commercially available pelleted “complete” feeds formulated for goats, these feeds alone do not provide the adequate fiber length to stimulate rumen contraction. Generally speaking, about 90% of a goat’s diet should come from forage, such as hay, pasture, random non-toxic brush, your mother-in-law’s prize rose bushes, etc.
    3. Avoid over-feeding. The nature films get the goat environment right. Think about it; when did you last see photos of wild goats roaming verdant fields? Goats can survive quite well on relatively low planes of nutrition.
    4. Feed them. Previous statement notwithstanding, goats DO actually have to eat something. They cannot be “thrown out on the back 40 to fend for themselves.”
    5. Keep them away from toxic plants. While goats are more resistant to some plant toxins (yellow star thistle, for example) than many other species, they are not poison-proof. Young or very hungry animals will eat toxic plants, and several of our common landscaping plants, such as oleander and azalea, can be deadly.

    The Disease-Proof, Maintenance-free Goat

    I don’t know who came up with the myth that goats are disease- and parasite-proof, but I’d like to beat that person with a stomach worm and then feed him a nice dose of Clostridium as a follow up. Goats are animals, not superheroes. They didn’t come from Krypton, and they haven’t been bitten by radioactive spiders - at least not most of them.

    Yes, goats are susceptible to various internal and external parasites and to bacterial and viral diseases. They require strategic vaccination and deworming programs, just like any other animal. Goats also require regular hoof care, and occasionally even dental care.

    The Moral Goat

    One of the weirder myths out there - and not specific to goats, by any means - is the “We don’t need to worry about castrating him because he won’t mate with his sister” myth.

    I hate to be the one to burst the innocence bubble, but goats and other animals don’t have incest taboos. A male goat in rut will quite happily mount anything that doesn’t get out of his way. Whether he’s her brother or not, a doe in heat will stand quite happily for anything that smells good (I don’t get the sex appeal of rancid buttermilk, but there is no accounting for girl goats’ tastes in cologne).

    If you have more than one goat of opposite genders, assume you will have small goats in about 5½ months. If you do not intend to become a goat breeder, your best option for population control is to separate the male goat from his testicles. (Side benefits: he will smell much better, be less inclined to destroy fences, and will generally be easier to handle. Downside: he will be more prone to urinary tract obstruction.) Do not count on the efficacy of abstinence-based sex-education for your animals.

    Goat mythology, while entertaining, does not typically benefit the species. If you are contemplating goat acquisition, check with your local veterinarian if for no other reason than to verify that she will treat goats, as many don’t. Your goat’s veterinarian can give you recommendations for diet, vaccination, and parasite control for your area.  Research the breed of goat you are acquiring. Learn whether it is susceptible to any particular diseases. If you are planning to breed goats, learn about the reproductive characteristics of that breed: Is it a good milker? Are there genetic conditions? Is there a high rate of difficult birthing? (This is very much a problem in “dwarf” breeds.)

    Like anything else in life, raising goats takes information, work, and luck. If anyone tells you differently, it’s a myth.

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