The lives of goats, by all appearances, consist mostly of eating, climbing, butting heads and a whole lot of standing on top of things. One particular breed of goat, however, is known for a rather different trait: stiffening up and appearing to faint.
Screaming and fainting goats are a mainstay of the internet, but what is the reality behind the memes?
Footage of these fainting goats continues to make the rounds on video-sharing websites and cable animal programs. After all, what’s more hilarious than watching an entire pack of goats keel over in unison every time a farmer runs up to them with an umbrella?
Not all goats faint. The breed that has found fame for falling over is aptly called the Tennessee fainting goat. They’re also known as myotonic, stiff-legged, nervous or wooden-leg goats.
Myotonic goats first appeared in the U.S. in the 1880s, but no one is sure how the breed got started. One explanation is that a natural mutation in a Tennessee goat herd created the gene that causes the stiffness.
Why Fainting Goats Faint
To understand what happens when a myotonic goat is frightened and faints, it’s helpful to first take a look at what happens under normal conditions. If a person were to chase after a goat unaffected by myotonia congenita, the animal’s eyes and ears would relay the perceived threat to the brain, which would then send an electrical signal to the skeletal muscles (such as those in the leg and neck involving voluntary movement), causing a momentary tensing. This is often referred to as the fight or flight response.
Reasons to Breed Fainting Goats
While myotonia congenita occurs naturally due to the genetic makeup of an animal, fainting goats only exist as a breed only because humans want them around. Fainting goats are no different and have been bred for three distinct purposes:
For meat: As are the primary use for most farm goats, the fainting variety is often raised for slaughter.
For amusement: Like many animals, fainting goats are also sometimes raised as pets. Some owners raise them for the uniqueness of their fainting spells, while others choose them simply because they’re easier to keep in an enclosure. Like other breeds of goats, their temperaments and physical appearance often make them good companion animals.
To accompany herds: Since a fainting goat would fall over or be reduced to a hobble following a fright, many farmers saw them as an excellent form of protection for sheep herds. If a predator such as a wolf or coyote were to attack the herd, the non-myotonic animals could run away, leaving behind any fainting goats either immobilized or hobbled by the fright. The herd would escape and the predators would focus on the easiest kill.