How Things Work: Fainting Goats

A goat on Donna Hatcher’s farm in Center Hill, Fla., is quietly grazing, when a man approaches the fence and makes a loud noise. The startled goat turns, runs, and in a display that is at once hilarious and alarming, collapses. Ten seconds later, the seemingly unconscious goat shakes its head, lifts itself up, and resumes its business — unfazed, unhurt and, apparently, none the worse.

They’ve been called stiff-legged goats, Tennessee goats, wooden-leg goats, and nervous goats. But this peculiar breed of C. aegagrus hircus is most commonly known as the fainting goat, after its fidgety tendency to scamper and collapse when startled. Videos of fainting goats have been circulating the Internet en masse, causing widespread frenzy over a breed that already enjoys a loyal fan base.

The International Fainting Goat Association (IFGA) has existed since 1989 and works steadfastly to preserve fainting goats and educate the world about their uniqueness. Marshall County, Tenn., hosts a Fainting Goat Festival every October.

Fainting goats are affected by a congenital condition called myotonia congenita, or Thompson’s disease, which causes the goat’s muscles to tense up and stiffen when startled. The stiffness causes the goat to buckle and collapse in a display that resembles fainting, but without pain or loss of consciousness.

Goats affected with hereditary myotonia congenita are clinically termed myotonic goats.

In normal, non-myotonic animals, a perceived threat such as a loud noise incites a flight or fight response in the brain. Electrical signals in the brain are then deployed to various parts of the body, causing a temporary tensing, or stiffening, of the muscles. A similar process occurs in humans.

In most cases, the muscles relax almost immediately afterward, giving the body freedom to fight or flee from the perceived threat. In myotonic goats, this tensing of the muscles is not as temporary, but is drawn out for 10 to 20 seconds.
The feeling can perhaps best be understood by remembering the last time someone sneaked up and startled you. Myotonia congenita draws out this sensation for half a minute.

Despite their peculiarities (or perhaps because of them), breeders across the country have fallen in love with fainting goats.
Hatcher owns the Bedrock Fainters, a herd of fainting goats kept on a 20-acre farm in central Florida. On the news program A Current Affair, Donna Hatcher discussed the goats and why they faint.

“They get stiff. It only lasts a few seconds, and it doesn’t hurt them at all,” she said. “They’re very intelligent. I like these goats better than any other breed I’ve ever had.” Indeed, Florida’s Bedrock Meadow boasts an impressive display of fainting goats, from Blue-Eyed Fainter Does to Tennessee Silky Fainting Goats.

Myotonia congenita is a condition that would wipe out goats in the wild because the animals rely on their speed and agility to escape predation. When the rest of the herd takes off, myotonic goats will stiffen and collapse, giving their predator an easy target. Prudent breeders have protected fainting goats from extinction through careful and selective breeding, allowing the population to become enormously successful. Aside from their entertainment value, myotonic goats serve no particular advantage to breeders.

This process of deliberately “selecting” the biologically weaker animal is known as unnatural selection. The breed’s lineage can be traced all the way back to 1880s, when a Tennessee farmer named John Tinsley purchased goats with myotonia congenita from Canada. There the goats were carefully bred by a local doctor and are still flourishing in numbers today.

Concerns have been raised about whether it is ethical to selectively breed animals with medical conditions, especially when it’s largely for entertainment. But breeders and goat-lovers alike are quick to point out that the fainting is painless, making animal cruelty a non-issue. PETA hedges on the issue. The Humane Society shrugs its shoulders, especially in light of the greater atrocities that befall animals in the meatpacking industries. The Humane Society also notes that fainting goats, due to their amusement factor and hugely loyal fan base, probably enjoy a better quality of life than most goats.

Though fainting goats are by far the most popular sufferers of myotonia congenita, the condition can be found in a wide range of animals, including humans. This could imply the existence of fainting flamingos, fainting giraffes, and even fainting cockroaches — a welcome possibility that certainly warrants further investigation.