Fainting goats.

My friend showed me this video on Youtube about Fainting goats (it is very interesting), goats that literally fell down and became stiff when they are scarred. And that got me really interested to know more. So I googled and found various articles on fainting goats also known as myotonic goats.

Fainting goats are goats that fall over when they get startled. When they fall over, they don’t actually faint or lose consciousness. These goats fall down because they are born with a medical condition known as myotonia congenita or Thomsen’s disease that causes their muscles to tense up when they get startled and the muscles don’t immediately relax. The severity varies; some will stiffen up every time they get startled, while others less frequently. The symptoms however lessen over time as they get older. Younger goats tend to fall over and tumble but as they get older they learn to avoid falling over and just run away on stiffened legs. Older goats also become more secure and have a better sense of the environment, and thus startle less.

Goat that fainted. By Redleg at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
In a normal goat, when it is startled the brain would send electrical signals to the skeletal muscles causing it to tense for a moment. The tensing of the muscles will be followed by immediate relaxing, allowing the goat to turn and run away from the threat. This is part of the fight or flight response. The muscles of goats that have myotonia congenita however do not immediately relax; it stays tense for a while before relaxing, causing their legs to become stiff, and the goats to fall over.

This is because myotonia congenita affects the Chloride Channel 1 gene CLCN1. The gene is important in producing proteins that are vital for the flexing and relaxing of muscles. At the cellular level, sodium ions and chloride ions are important for neuron transmission. Sodium ions relay the brain’s message for the muscle cells to contract, while the negatively charged chloride ions tell the muscles to relax. Myotonia congenita results in abnormal chloride ion channels, creating imbalance in ions in the muscles. More sodium ions means that the muscles stay contracted for longer periods.

This condition is hereditary, and the goats are actually bred for this trait. YES, THEY ARE BRED FOR FALLING OVER.

If you think logically, this trait would definitely not be selected in nature. If a sheep tends to fall down when they get startled in the wild, they would get eaten. So survival wise, it is not good to have this condition. But why are these fainting goats bred in captive?

Well, firstly it is to make it easier for farmers to manage their goats. Goats are very good at climbing and jumping making them good at escaping. So the farmers need more effort to keep them enclosed. Goats that have this trait however tend to climb and jump less, as the act of climbing and jumping can also trigger fainting. So the possibility of a goat climbing and escaping is reduced. Besides that, excessive muscle tensing also results in greater muscle mass and less body fat so that the goats have higher meat-to-bone ratio than other breeds.

There are also people who breed them for pets. Fainting is a unique trait that makes them easier to keep in an enclosure. The goats also have less temperament making them easier to manage.

Another reason is that the goats are bred to accompany herds. If a predator such as wolf would attack a herd, the non-myotonic goats would run away, while the myotonic goat would fall over. The herd would then be able to escape and the predator would focus on the fallen goat.  But this use has fallen out of practice, and the extent of its use is uncertain.

The breeding of mytonic goats often raises ethical concerns, as they are bred for a trait that causes it to fall over. The main argument for breeding is that the goats are not experiencing pain during the fainting episodes, so it does not harm them. Neither the Humane Society of the United States or the PETA has an official stance on this issue. There are approximately 3000-5000 of these goats that are raised throughout the United States and they don’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

What do you think? Is it ethical?


5 Responses to “Fainting goats.”

  1. ahmadma says:

    @jwhinfield – yeah, its the stiffening of the muscles that causes them to fall over. i think people faint because there is loss of blood flow to the brain. and when you fall down, more blood can move to your brain, so you regain conciousness. its a different mechanism to that of the fainting goats.

  2. ahmadma says:

    @ginam – ah, i didnt know about that! i’ll definitely check it out. i guess it would be the opposite, although i wouldnt actually call myotonia stronger muscles.

  3. jwhinfield says:

    This is a really interesting one, and I hadn’t previously considered the ethical issues around these goats. I was suprised to learn that they’re not feinting, per say, but rather just stiffening their muscles… I’ve been wondering about why humans feint in stressful/confronting situations recently, after speaking to some med students on placement who’d feinted, and recently embarrassingly feinting at the vets myself! I suppose it must be a different mechanism in humans…

  4. Daphane says:

    I’ve always come across videos of fainting goats, but never really knew the background behind them – so thanks for the blog post!

  5. ginam says:

    Is this kind of the opposite of cataplexy (muscle weakening)? I know that goats and other animals can have that too. There are some interesting you-tube clips of children laughing and dogs playing, then suddenly just falling over apparently asleep. It’s a rare an auto-immune response though and is definitely not selected for!