Mini goats

Little goats can be a big undertaking.

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Four month old goat Hazel eats some leaves during a brief demonstration at the Oak Bluffs library. - Michael Cummo

Several winters ago, a couple of goats got loose in Chilmark. The rambunctious creatures broke into the summer house belonging to some friends of mine and completely trashed the place. Although it was a traumatic and stressful incident, my friends handled it in their usual creative fashion … they printed bumper stickers summing up the experience: “Goats Happen.”

Personally, I’m very fond of goats as a species (despite this not uncharacteristic predilection for hooliganism). For 20 years I had the privilege of working with Ann Hopkins, Island legend and goat farmer extraordinaire. I was as likely to call Ann to give me veterinary advice about a sheep or goat case as the other way round. But when Ann passed away in 2003, that was pretty much the end of my time as a small ruminant veterinarian. Until recently. Last week, a phone call from a friend about her sick goat led me to unearth my old textbooks and ruminate about caprine medicine. Then a message from another client. I already cared for her dog and cats. Now she was getting two Nigerian dwarf goats. Would I see them, too?

Miniature goats? Count me in! There are two miniature goat breeds common in the United States — Nigerian dwarf and Pygmy. Originating from common genetic stock, these little goats were first imported from Africa more than 50 years ago. Over time, two distinct breeds were developed (though various sources tell conflicting stories about the details). The breed generally referred to simply as Pygmy was initially bred more for meat. They have squat, stocky bodies, with square heads and thick necks — a physique referred to as “cobby,” though I’ve also seen them described as looking like “beer kegs with legs.” Nigerian dwarfs, bred with more of an eye for elegance and milk production, look like miniature dairy goats — slender, delicate, more graceful than their Pygmy cousins. There is still some divide among Nigerian dwarf breeders between those focusing on maximizing milk production, which may increase the overall size of the breed, and those producing companion animals, with an emphasis on maintaining their small stature.

Both Pygmy and Nigerian dwarf goats share a social, playful, and docile nature that has made them increasingly sought-after as pets. All those social media videos of their adorable antics may have something to do with this burgeoning popularity. It’s true. These little characters can make excellent pets, but before you dive into buying one (because they are just so cute), take a deep breath and educate yourself about what you are getting into. The life expectancy of a miniature goat can be 10 to 15 years. They typically grow between 18 and 23 inches in height, and weigh up to 75 pounds. They don’t need as much housing as regular-size goats, but do need good, sturdy accommodations — a clean, dry, well-ventilated place to live, and serious fencing for their outdoor areas. Clean straw for bedding, changed regularly. Rodent and fly control. Veterinary care. Good food.

Goats love to eat shrubs, weeds, even stuff like poison ivy and poison oak, which they consume with impunity, but before turning your new babies out in your pasture, you need to check for truly poisonous plants. Azaleas and rhododendrons are common shrubs on the Island that can be toxic to goats. Besides what they forage outside, you’ll need good-quality hay, salt, and mineral supplements tailored to geographically specific deficiencies in local soil. Depending on an individual animal’s age, sex, and purpose, additional feeding with grain or commercial goat feed may be recommended. Check with your veterinarian. (For bucks and wethers, it is generally advised not to feed grain or alfalfa hay, as these can exacerbate a predisposition to urinary tract blockages.)

Now when I said goats are social and playful, I wasn’t kidding. It’s not good to keep a goat by its lonesome. Goats need other goats, or at the very least another friendly companion like a llama or horse. But that’s a whole even bigger commitment. You weren’t planning on starting a farm or petting zoo. You just want a miniature goat. So get two. They’re small. Seriously, goats can become depressed if they do not have company. They also need entertainment and toys. Things to climb on and jump over. Make sure you have a healthy, safe, and fun environment for your new pets. Now, do you get boys, or girls, or one of each?

Let’s start with terminology. Females are called does. Intact males are bucks. Castrated males are wethers. Young females are doelings, young males bucklings. Although some people use the terms nanny and billy for adult females and males, experienced goat people may roll their eyes at you if you use these words. Bucks generally do not make the best pets, as with sexual maturity, they may have an unpleasant odor and be more aggressive than does or wethers. Don’t house bucklings and doelings together, since miniature goats can be fertile as young as 2 months of age. Whichever gender you decide on, the easiest thing for a first-time goat owner is to purchase your new pets when they are “adolescents,” and the breeder has already taken care of neutering males and debudding horns.

Once your kids arrive, they should receive a series of vaccinations for clostridium C and D, tetanus, and rabies. Goats in other parts of the country should be vaccinated for additional diseases, but as long as yours are staying local, this should be enough. They should be dewormed periodically, and have their hooves trimmed every month or two. Now go have fun. The only thing cuter than a pair of kid goats is … wait, there is nothing cuter than that. Just remember that their endearing propensity for leaping about also makes miniature goats excellent escape artists, and their friendly, curious nature will make them want to explore everything. So if Goats Happen at your house, make sure they happen in a way that keeps those kids safe and healthy, and your property in good shape.