On the Origin of Strangeness

The Perks of Being a Fainting Goat

11 May 2017

If you’ve ever looked up funny animals on YouTube, chances are you’ve come across ‘fainting goats’. Seemingly, they’re just normal goats – yet when startled, they topple over with their legs outstretched, like plastic toys that have been knocked over. It’s a cuteness overload and the most popular videos on the subject usually involve entire herds collapsing simultaneously like a row of dominoes, all in response to something as innocuous as a tractor beeping.

These goats form a domestic breed known officially as myotonic goats. Interestingly the term ‘fainting goat’ is inaccurate – they don’t lose consciousness when they fall. Instead, the issue is that their muscles don’t relax properly.

Do you remember the last time you got a fright? Maybe there was a jump-scare in a horror movie, or you tripped, or someone from the Socialist Alternative stall tried to start a conversation with you. Remember how all your muscles tensed momentarily? Imagine being stuck in that rigid state for 10 to 15 seconds. This is what happens to myotonic goats. Due to a genetic mutation that affects ion channels in their muscles, relaxation takes longer than it should. When these goats tense up, their muscles lock for so long that they lose their balance and topple over.

Even a positive emotion can trigger this reaction. They often keel over in anticipation when their owner brings out breakfast, or during mating season in the lead-up to sex. (Luckily, their mates don’t seem to mind – maybe to them it’s a form of foreplay.)

In humans, a genetic disease called myotonia congenita causes similar symptoms and understandably, it is considered a disease to be treated. Roughly one in ten thousand people in Scandinavia suffer from this condition, and are treated with medication to prevent muscles seizing.  Everyone acknowledges that it is not pleasant to be rendered immobile every time you experience significant emotions, and there is a scientific body working on a permanent cure.

However, the same courtesy is not extended to goats. Bizarrely, myotonia in goats is prized, rather than considered a weakness. The US has numerous organisations dedicated to preserving the breed, including the American Fainting Goat Organisation, whose website proudly claims that it is, “preserving the historically correct goats the way God made them”. In Tennessee an annual festival called ‘Goats, Music and More’ is even held in their honour.

But why is myotonia a prized trait in goats (beyond their potential to become YouTube stars)? After all, collapsing like a corset-clad Victorian noblewoman isn’t a brilliant way to escape a hungry coyote. The answer is that this gives them advantages as a domestic animal. Without domestication, this trait would have disappeared long ago.

Myotonic goats are good-natured and docile and make pleasant – and always entertaining – pets. But farmers also have other, more practical reasons for favouring the breed. The first is that they rarely escape, as they collapse before getting very far. In the past, they have also been used as decoys to accompany a normal herd – when a predator attacks, it targets the goat that has fallen over in fear, allowing the rest of the herd to escape. Luckily, this has fallen out of practice.

Most importantly, myotonic goats are the species’ best bodybuilders.  Because of the constant muscle tensing, their muscle-to-bone ratio is far higher than that of other breeds, and they carry very little fat. This gives them a higher meat yield, and those who have tasted it say that in comparison to other goat meat it is more tender. So farmers earn more profit per goat – no gym time required.

Although ethical concerns have been raised about deliberately breeding myotonic goats, animal rights organisations such as PETA and the Humane Society of the United States do not hold an official stance on the practice. Breeders are quick to assure anyone concerned that the episodes are painless and that the goats are well cared for. Either way, with up to 5,000 of them in existence worldwide, fainting goat enthusiasts won’t let the breed disappear anytime soon. And that’s to the benefit of every procrastinating university student – they’ll always be on YouTube for your entertainment.

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