5 min read

What's Up With 'Fainting' Goats?

<p>YouTube: Science Channel</p>

Chances are, if you watch internet videos, you're familiar with the phenomenon of "fainting" goats. Whenever these peculiar little goats are startled, they dramatically freeze up and keel over, like a character in a daytime drama. A few seconds after, they are fully recovered and scampering around once more.

Many can't help but laugh when watching these goats fall down, assuming it's just nature's sense of humor. However, the story behind these swooning goats isn't quite so simple.

When animals (or humans, for that matter) are surprised suddenly, their muscles tend to tense up momentarily before relaxing again. Myotonia congenita is a hereditary condition which does not allow for contracted muscles to relax quickly. According to Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, the condition is caused by "changes in the ion channels in the muscle cell membranes." Myotonic, or "fainting" goats have this genetic condition, so whenever they are remotely startled, their muscles lock up and do not release for a few moments, causing them to fall over. The goats don't actually lose consciousness when they "faint." The perpetuation of the myotonic goats is largely a result of selective breeding, as this particular hereditary trait would likely have been phased out in wild goats due to natural selection.

Not everyone supports this practice. Debbie Leahy, Captive Wildlife Manager at the Humane Society of the United States, tells The Dodo that "We don't encourage breeding animals with hereditary defects."

(YouTube: Exotic Animal Experience)

It isn't 100 percent clear where these goats originated, but they first appeared in Tennessee in the 1880s. The breed experienced huge popularity boost in the 1980s, when the breed was promoted as a novelty animal and for its meat.

Myotonic goats are often specifically bred for slaughter, as the breed apparently has a larger and more tender muscle mass than non-myotonic goats (presumably due to the constant tensing of the muscles).

These little goats were also occasionally used as decoys by farmers. If a predator attempted to attack the herd of goats, the myotonic goats would stiffen and fall, detracting attention from the remainder of the herd. The downside is that, of course, this made the goats sitting ducks for any hungry wolf or coyote. Thankfully, this use of myotonic goats has largely fallen out of practice.

(YouTube: National Geographic)

Some of those who raise myotonic goats argue that the goats do not seem to feel pain when they topple over, as they are closer to the ground than humans.

However, others are not so convinced. Leahy argues that "Any time an animal falls down, there is a risk of injury. It's disrespectful to find something humorous in the frightened collapse of an animal."