How To Safely Be Around A Goat

A younger black and white goat looking at the camera.

Updated June 15, 2020

Goats can be incredibly affectionate, curious, and playful beings, but there are times when they may prefer to be left alone. Even the most docile goat in your sanctuary might decide they need some alone time, and it’s critical to recognize the signs they’re trying to give you before caution turns to agitation, or worse. Even on a peaceful sanctuary pasture, frightened or upset goats can easily cause injuries to well-meaning caregivers and visitors.

Ask An Expert

If you are not used to being around goats and are bringing one into your sanctuary, you should have an expert give you hands-on training in goat behavior if at all possible. There are many nuances in their actions that can not be conveyed through words alone!

Signs A Goat Wants To Be Left Alone

A goat will use many different tactics (typically in combination depending on their discomfort) to let you know that they don’t want you around at the moment. Signs that a goat is uncomfortable include:

  • Walking away as you approach
  • Loud vocalizations as you approach
  • Lightly to moderately pawing at the ground or stomping (can indicate anxiety or irritation)
  • Arching their body and raising their hackles
  • Full body trembling or shaking

If a goat does not feel like you’ve alleviated their discomfort, they may escalate their body language to include:

  • Stomping aggressively at the ground
  • Holding their head up high, tipped slightly toward you
  • Getting into your personal space while maintaining a confrontational posture
  • Blocking your path by cutting you off and turning sideways
  • Rearing up at you
  • “Hooking” you into a wall or corner using their horns
  • Attempting to bite, headbutt, or horn you

If a goat tells you their discomfort through these signals, you should immediately demonstrate that you mean no harm by backing away slowly from them if appropriate. While most goats are not going to be in the position of causing serious injury to humans, larger breed goats and those with horns may do some harm if they felt they had to in order to avoid danger.

Time For A Health Checkup

If a goat surprises you with behavior that suggests that they want to be left alone, there’s a good chance that they may be dealing with some sort of illness or abnormal discomfort like arthritis or foot rot. Make sure to give an uncharacteristically upset goat a health exam soon!

Things That Make A Goat Uncomfortable

Due to their natural instincts, there are a number of actions that you might have to take in a sanctuary environment that can make a goat less comfortable. Here are a few of their instincts and how they may react to a disruption:

Flight Zone

Like most herd animals, goats have a flight zone. This is the area of personal space surrounding them where they feel safe and comfortable. Different goats will have different sized flight zones, especially depending upon whether they’ve come from traumatic backgrounds; a skittish goat might have a huge flight zone compared to the nearly non-existent flight zone of a docile resident. If you breach a goat’s flight zone, they will likely walk away from you. If you go much more into their flight zone, they might bolt or display signs of fear or agitation that you need to respect in order to prevent a confrontation or further distress for the goat.

Don’t Get Cornered

If you are cornered or in a tight space with a larger (or horned) goat who is very frightened, there’s a chance that they might become confrontational or they may panic and try to get away by any means necessary, so it’s absolutely crucial that you and the goat always both have an appropriate escape route, and take your time approaching the goat to gauge how they’re going to react as you get nearer!

Hearing

Goats are sensitive to loud noises. Being yelled at, hearing barking dogs, or encountering loud noises can spook, agitate, and trigger flight and charge responses in wary goats. Try to be very cautious with volume around goats and keep talkative dogs away from them to prevent incidents.

Herding

Goats prefer to naturally herd together to shelter from the elements and protect themselves from predators. If you need to single out or separate a goat, it’s likely that the goat might get depressed, lonely, or highly anxious. If you do need to separate a goat, limit their alone time, and keep their herd nearby if at all possible.

When anxious or not in the mood to move, a herd of goats will likely splinter apart (and some have been known to take advantage of this time to bully others), so goats require more supervision and care when moving a herd somewhere than a herd of cows or a flock of sheep.

Herd Order

Larger goat herds tend to have both a female and male head. The top female, also known as the queen goat, leads the others to food and gets top choice in sleeping and food arrangements. The queen goat’s children, if any, tend to also get preferential treatment. Typically the largest or strongest male in a herd gets to be at the top. When a new male goat enters into a herd, they will typically try to fight everyone in the herd at one point or another in order to establish their place in the herd order. It’s important to recognize what is “normal” rough housing between goats and what behaviors are intended to cause harm.  This way you can determine if and when you need to intervene. While headbutting can look rough, most times there is no need to intervene when two goats are butting each other head-on.  If someone seems outmatched or outnumbered, or if the interaction moves from headbutting to hooking and sideswiping, you may need to find a way to safely intervene. Goats can do serious damage when they slam each other in the side or hook each other (especially if they hook a leg and yank it into an unnatural position).  It’s best to have multiple people and to focus on moving or restraining the dominant goat. If you quickly restrain the goat who is being bullied, the dominant goat (or goats) may take advantage of the goat’s inability to defend himself and take a few cheap shots while you are trying to move him to safety. It’s better if you can restrain or separate the confrontational goats first, and then move the bullied goat.

Maternal Instincts

If you’re caring for a mother goat with a nursing kid, they may be rightfully protective of their young. Provide ample space for the mother and kid, never going between the two of them when possible. If for some reason you need to separate the mother and kid, such as for a health examination, be very gentle in separating the two of them, and anticipate quite a bit of displeasure or distress from the mother.  Only separate a mother and baby if you absolutely have to, and try to do so in a way that allows the mother and baby to maintain visual contact.

Should I Train A Goat?

If a goat is consistently attempting to bully or intimidate you or other humans, they likely believe themselves to be above you in the herd order; whether a sanctuary wishes to put their human caregivers above a confrontational goat in the herd order is entirely up to their Philosophy of Care. Some may believe that it’s better to let the goats have full control of their space and not intervene in their social order. Others believe the safety of the humans at the sanctuary should be balanced with a goat’s social autonomy. If you are consistently having visitors interact with a socially confrontational goat, it may become a liability issue should the goat decide to demonstrate their dominance to an unsuspecting human. Most goat confrontational behavior can be treated with neutering (which should be a standard procedure for all mammalian residents in a sanctuary environment), a water spray bottle, and some gentle reinforcement when negative behaviors like headbutting humans occur.

For the most part, it’s best to avoid encouraging any kind of headbutt play between goats and humans. While this may seem endearing when they are younger and smaller, when they grow up, they tend to continue to want to play like they used to, except now they could cause serious injuries! It’s best to discourage this behavior when they’re young.

Tips For Safely Handling A Goat

Because of the importance of regular health examinations and hoof trimming, it’s critical to ensure that you or your veterinarian can safely handle each of the goats in your care. If they aren’t averse to humans due to past trauma, you can help accustom goats to your touch by running your hands gently over their bodies, legs, and feet when they’re relaxed. Some goats may always require a second pair of hands during handling or require halter training to keep everyone safe. More confrontational goats can injure humans with kicks or horns if they feel particularly concerned with handling.

You can use horns to help restrain a goat, though you must be careful to hold them at their base to prevent accidentally breaking off a part of their horns.

Goat Safety

It is unacceptable to restrain a goat by their neck. Doing so puts the goat at serious risk of choking injuries! Instead, try placing your hand under their chin- using gentle pressure to hold their head level will often discourage them from moving forward.

What Does 'Unacceptable' Mean?

At The Open Sanctuary Project, unacceptable means that we cannot condone (or condone through omission) a certain practice, standard, or policy. See a more detailed explanation here.

SOURCES:

What Is Normal Goat Behavior? | Dummies (Non-Compassionate Source)

The Steps Of Goat Aggression | Pack Goat Central (Non-Compassionate Source)

When Friendly Goats Turn Into Mean Goats | Roy’s Farm (Non-Compassionate Source)

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on August 6, 2020

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