It’s a bizarre and hilarious sight: A scrappy goat scampering away from a person coming after it, only to pass out after it moves a few feet. These are the famous fainting goats, a phenomenon as adorably ridiculous as it is mysterious and which has gained a lot of interest thanks to a number of viral videos (and an episode of Mythbusters) capturing these hoofed creatures in action. Why do goats faint this way? Is it a survival technique? Genetic? Are they just klutzes?
The first thing to know is that not all goats experience these periodic fainting spells. It’s a condition of a specific breed known as myotonic goats.
“It has several other colorful aliases, including the Tennessee fainting goat, stiff-legged or wooden-legged goat,” explains Susan Schoenian, sheep and goat expert at the University of Maryland Extension, which runs a number of agricultural programs specifically for those raising sheep and goats.
The name of the condition that causes these spells is myotonia congenita. But the fact is that when the goat collapses, is not actually fainting in the sense we traditionally would understand it. They don’t lose consciousness, they just temporarily lose the ability to move their legs.
“The condition causes the muscles to tense (delayed relaxation) upon being startled/excited,” says Schoenian.
It’s a fight-or-flight response gone awry, with the rush of chemicals that would usually inspire an animals legs to run in the other direction instead causing them to seize up.
“It’s a genetic disorder, likely the result of a genetic mutation,” adds Schoenian. “It is a dominant, autosomal trait. Consequently, crossbreeds will display the trait, though to a lesser extent. The more muscular myotonic goats tend to display more stiffness.”
These goats are generally smaller than more standard breeds of goats and their goats are usually black and white. As their nickname implies, they are likely to be found in Tennessee, as well as states throughout the South.
“It definitely worried us the first few times, but you start to realize that it doesn’t hurt them,” fainting-goat owner David Taneyhill, told the Daily Mail, when video of his goats Ricky and Lucy collapsing went viral. “They just get up and shake it off.”
“There are myotonic goats that are raised for meat and others that are ‘exploited’ as pets or novelties,” explains Schoenian. They aren’t usually raised for dairy.
But before you think this odd behavior is unique to these bleating creatures, Schoenian adds that myotonia congenita has been observed in other animals including dogs, cats, and horses—and even humans.
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