Why Do Myotonic Goats Faint?
Not all goats faint. Those that do exhibit fainting behavior are members of a special breed that goes by a variety of names. Most often you’ll hear them referred to as Myotonic goats or Tennessee fainting goats. Some of the other nicknames used for this breed include Tennessee meat goats, wooden-leg goats, stiff-leg goats, nervous goats, fall-down goats, and scare goats.
So what’s the deal with these goats? Are they overly dramatic and prone to fainting at the slightest provocation? Not at all! In fact, fainting goats don’t actually faint when they fall over. They remain conscious the entire time. Myotonic goats are born with a congenital condition called myotonia congenita, which is also known as Thomsen’s disease. This condition causes their muscles to seize up when they’re startled. This results in their falling over as if they fainted upon being scared.
This unique condition interferes with a goat’s normal fight-or-flight reaction. If you’ve ever been startled, you’ve experienced something similar. Your natural fight-or-flight reaction kicks in and your muscles seize up suddenly.
In a normal fight-or-flight reaction, your muscles will release quickly, allowing you to either defend yourself (fight) or run (flight). If you’re a fainting goat, though, your muscles don’t release quickly. They seize up and stay that way for several seconds up to a minute or more. With suddenly stiff legs that won’t release, fainting goats end up falling over as if they fainted.
Fortunately, this process usually doesn’t hurt fainting goats, and they rarely experience any pain or injury from these spells. Younger goats tend to be more susceptible to falling over. As goats mature, they’re often able to learn how to remain standing on their stiff legs.
Goats aren’t the only animals that can have myotonia congenita. Several other species, including mice and even human beings, can have this condition. Because of their four-legged, stocky bodies, though, goats are the only animals that tend to be prone to falling over.
Moreover, goats are the only breed of animal specifically bred to maintain this condition. Classified as a meat goat as opposed to a dairy goat, it can be raised for chevon (goat meat). This breed is listed as threatened by The Livestock Conservancy, so the fainting goat is not used as often for chevon as other meat goat breeds; its rarity makes the live goat more valuable.
The fainting goat is specialized for smaller production operations as they are unable to challenge fences as vigorously as larger meat goat breeds. This is due in part to their smaller size and also because of the myotonia. Their size makes them easier to care for during chores such as foot trimming and administering medication. Smaller specimens of fainting goats are frequently kept as pets.
Besides the myotonia, another distinguishing feature of the fainting goat is its prominently set eyes. The eyes protrude from the eye sockets, as opposed to recessed eyes seen in other breeds. The profile is straight as opposed to the convex or “roman” profile. Even though some people breed these animals for pets or to have smaller sized meat goats, “fainting” is a disorder that producers of other breeds try to keep out of their herds’ bloodlines, unless they are purposely raising goats to have the fainting trait.
Every year in October, fainting goats are honored in Marshall County, Tennessee, at the “Goats, Music and More Festival”. The festival is centered on goats but has activities including music, arts, festival games, crafts show, food vendors, and children’s activities.