Myotonic goats are known as “fainting goats” because when something surprises or frightens them, their muscles go stiff for a short time, and they fall over! They’re also known as wooden-leg goats, stiff-leg goats, scare goats, and other funny nicknames.
The reaction doesn’t hurt, and it’s not really fainting. Usually the animal stays awake and just bounces back up once the stiffness goes away. The locking up is caused by a rare genetic disorder called myotonia congenita. It makes the goats’ skeletal muscles, especially in their back legs, suddenly tighten up and then slowly loosen again. Lots of other animals can have this condition too, including people, horses, dogs, cats, and mice.
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. Another is that a farm worker named John Tinsley brought four of the goats to Marshall County, Tennessee, from Nova Scotia, Canada. About a year later, a Dr. H.H. Mayberry bought them and raised a bigger herd. He sold the kids to nearby farmers, and after a while “Tennessee fainting goats” spread across the South. Bigger fainting goats were bred in Texas starting in the 1930s.
Did you know there’s even an official scale of stiffness for fainting goats? A goat that’s rated “1” has never actually been seen to lock up, while one rated “6” is always a little bit stiff and easily topples over when startled.
Fainting goats are bred for meat and milk, but some people keep these tipsy critters as pets. They’re less likely to escape than other goats — not necessarily because of the fainting, but because they aren’t good at jumping or climbing.