Sanctuary safety is a broad and complex topic – sanctuaries not only need to do all they can to ensure the safety of their residents, but they also need to ensure the safety of the humans who enter sanctuary spaces, be they caregivers, service providers, or guests. Compassionate caregivers should also consider the safety of wildlife who call the sanctuary home. While safety for all is paramount, in this series, we are going to focus specifically on goat resident safety. In no way is this meant to imply that the safety of other residents (or other individuals) is less important. As you’ll see below, many of the safety considerations discussed in this resource apply to other resident species as well. However, ensuring the safety of goat residents can be particularly challenging. In this resource, we’ll discuss some of the unique safety challenges associated with goats and some of the specific safety hazards folks should be aware of. While it’s impossible to foresee every possible safety risk your goat residents may face, we hope that this resource will give folks a better understanding of the ways in which goats may find themselves in a potentially dangerous situation so that caregivers are better able to prevent these situations from arising. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll discuss hay feeder safety specifically.
Unique Safety Challenges Associated With Goats
If you’ve had the privilege of spending time with different species of non-human animals, you’ve likely realized that each species is different. Sometimes those differences are vast and extremely obvious, but other times they are more subtle. Because goats are often lumped together with sheep (and sometimes ruminants more generally), folks may not realize the key ways in which they are different from sheep and other ruminants. In fact, it’s not an uncommon practice for folks to raise sheep and goats together, almost treating them as different breeds of the same species. While it is possible to responsibly care for certain sheep and goats together, it is imperative that folks realize that, while there are certainly areas of similarity when it comes to things like their anatomy, physiology, and care needs, there are also key areas of difference. Let’s consider some of the ways in which goats are unique and how these characteristics, capabilities, and tendencies could get them into a dangerous situation.
Goats Are Browsers Who Reach For What They Want
A key difference between sheep and goats is that while sheep are primarily grazers, goats are not. There is some debate regarding exactly how to label them, but the reality is that they have different foraging behaviors and preferences from sheep. In fact, if available, over 60% of a goat’s diet will consist of browse (twigs and leaves from woody plants, vines, brambles, shrubs, and trees). Goats also tend to eat a wider variety of plants than sheep, using their agile upper lip to pick and choose exactly which bit of the plant they want. In order to eat things like twigs and leaves, goats have to be able to reach them. While sheep typically keep their head close to the ground to eat grasses, goats will reach up to eat things higher off the ground, sometimes even rising up onto their hind legs to reach and eat vegetation above them. Even when they don’t have to stand up on their hind legs to reach food, they still may opt to do so. It’s not uncommon for goats to rise up on their hind legs while eating hay from a hay feeder, despite being able to reach the hay without needing to do so. Goats may also stand on their hind legs to say hello to a passerby on the other side of a fence or to get a sniff (or a taste!) of something in their The indoor or outdoor area where an animal resident lives, eats, and rests. that piques their interest.
In terms of their safety, caregivers should keep the following in mind:
Goat residents may be exposed to hazards similarly-sized residents are not – Because of their ability to stand on their hind legs, goats can reach certain areas and elements in their living space that a similarly-sized sheep cannot/will not, potentially exposing them to hazards other residents are protected from. For example, electrical cords, halters hanging from a hook, or medical supplies that are out of the reach of your sheep residents may be well within reach of your goat residents. Because goats can reach things similarly-sized residents cannot, care must also be taken when bringing things into goat resident spaces. Goats are notorious for getting into things they shouldn’t, for instance, taking things out of your The Open Sanctuary Project uses the term "health check" to describe health evaluations performed by caregivers who are not licensed veterinarians. While regular health checks are an important part of animal care, they are not meant to be a replacement for a physical exam performed by a licensed veterinarian. kit or ripping (and subsequently eating) those papers on your clipboard. There have even been instances where a goat resident has taken a straw hat right off a guest’s head! Additionally, since goats often use their front legs for support while standing on their hind legs (perhaps placing them up on a feeder, fence, or gate), areas of the living space that may pose no risk to other species who tend to keep all four feet firmly on the ground could pose the risk of foot or leg injury and/or entrapment for goats.
Goats cannot stand on their hind legs indefinitely, which can put them in a life-threatening situation if they get their head caught in something – If a goat resident gets caught or tangled in something while standing on their hind legs, an already dangerous situation could quickly prove life-threatening if they get their head, horns, or neck caught in something above them. So those cords and halters we mentioned above, as well as hay feeder bags or enrichment items that hang from a rope or chain, could put them at serious risk (including the risk of a tangled goat accidentally being hung). Additionally, a non-breakaway style collar that gets caught on something high up could pose a serious hazard.
Goat residents may cause damage to fences that ultimately allows them to leave the safety of their living space – Wire mesh fencing that does not have a wood board running along the top and is not exceptionally sturdy could be bent by a goat resident who rises up on their hind legs and places their front feet at the top of the fence for support. This is a common stance for curious residents who want to say “Hi” or who are trying to reach an overhanging tree branch. Over time, the fence may become so bent and flattened that residents are easily able to jump or step right over it, which could expose them to additional risks, described later on.
Goats have been known to open latches – While their agile upper lip allows goats to select the tastiest bits of a plant, it can also be used to open certain types of latches! Combined with the fact that goats can reach latches that similarly-sized residents cannot, extra attention should be paid to the placement and style of latches.
Their browsing behavior may expose them to more toxic plants than residents who primarily graze – Because of their preference for browsing, toxic plants that grazing residents may ignore could pose a serious risk to goats, and toxic plants that sheep cannot reach may be easily accessible to goats.
Recommended Action Steps:
- Carefully consider the placement of fans or other devices that must be plugged in to ensure cords remain out of the reach of residents (even when they are standing on their hind legs). Similarly, when in the planning stages of goat resident housing, think carefully about the placement of electrical outlets. If you can’t keep cords out of your residents’ reach, make sure they are properly secured to a post or wall and/or encased in protective conduit to prevent both chewing of wires and entanglement.
- Avoid storing items in areas residents have access to, instead storing these well out of their reach in human-only areas. This includes but is not limited to halters, coats, and healthcare supplies (such as exam gloves). Keep in mind that a goat resident may be able to reach over or through a barrier to reach into human-only spaces, so be thoughtful about where things are stored, even within such a space.
- Be thoughtful about what should and should not be allowed in their space. When bringing things into their space, consider the best placement of those things so as to prevent residents from absconding with them! It’s also important to be prepared to respond quickly should they find a way (which they will!) to grab something they shouldn’t.
- Examine living spaces for areas where a resident could get a front foot caught while standing on their hind legs. Gaps in fences, gates, walls, or feeders could prove dangerous if residents can get their leg in the gap but cannot easily pull it out. Similarly, areas of rotten wood that a resident’s foot could go through could be dangerous.
- Avoid items that hang from ropes or chains due to the risk of entanglement and accidental hanging. If, for some reason, this is not possible, take steps to mitigate the risk of a resident getting caught in the rope/chain. This might include encasing the rope/chain with thick metal or PVC tubing (which prevents it from wrapping around a resident) or tightly securing the rope/chain to the wall, making sure there is not enough slack for someone to get caught.
- Carefully consider the type of hay feeders used in goat living spaces. Avoid designs that pose a risk of entrapment, entanglement, strangulation, or injury. We’ll talk about this in more detail in Part 2.
- Ensure fencing is robust and can handle a goat resting their front feet on it. You can read more about fencing for goats here.
- Make sure latches are either out of your residents’ reach or are styles they are unable to open. As a general rule, for gates, we recommend using two latching systems (i.e., a heavy-duty gate latch plus a heavy-duty chain and clip – please note that while bungee cords may work for a time, goats have been known to chew through these, so we recommend using heavy-duty chain over materials they can chew through).
- Remove toxic plants from goat resident living spaces, being sure to also remove toxic plants that overhang into the space and those that residents can reach through/over fencing. Speaking of reaching through fencing, be sure to consider the risk of entrapment if a resident can reach their head through gaps in fencing (especially if they have horns).
Goats Are Excellent Climbers (And They Can Jump And Squeeze Under Things, Too)
As a group, goats tend to enjoy climbing and taking advantage of elevated spaces. In fact, we recommend providing safe elevated spaces and climbing opportunities in your goat residents’ living spaces. However, goat residents may also turn other elements in their living space, both natural and man-made, into climbing structures, which, depending on the situation, may or may not be safe. Many goats, especially smaller breeds and younger individuals, also have impressive jumping skills, which they may use regularly to access areas that interest them, or they may reserve this skill for times when they feel threatened, scared, or trapped. As if the ability to jump and climb is not impressive enough, some goats will also crawl/squeeze underneath barriers in order to get where they want to go or to reach something they desire, making them the ultimate escape artists.
As for how this may impact goat resident safety, caregivers should keep the following in mind:
Goat residents may be able to access elevated areas in their living space that are not intended for them – While we encourage folks to provide safe elevated spaces for goats, it’s important to realize that they may also try to access elevated areas that you want to keep off limits. This could include storage lofts or shelves, stacks of hay or straw bales, or even the roof of a porch or shade structure if they can reach it! There are various safety issues that can arise if goats get onto elevated spaces that are not intended for them. For starters, if the elevated area is not strong or sturdy enough to support their weight, they could fall (along with anything else on the elevated surface). Accessing the space may also expose them to additional hazards depending on the situation (for example, access to electrical cords or items they may attempt to ingest).
Goat residents may be more likely to find a way to leave their living space, exposing them to various risks – If special attention is not paid to all areas of their living space, including fencing, other barriers, and layout, goat residents may be able to escape living spaces that can safely contain similarly-sized residents (especially sheep). Goat residents who are able to leave the safety of their living space could encounter various hazards depending on the area and what they have access to. These hazards include but are not limited to nearby roads, hostile neighbors, toxic substances, bloat-causing vegetation, predators, and access to other residents’ food or food storage areas where they may be able to eat large quantities of grain, putting them at risk of serious, and potentially fatal, gastrointestinal issues. In addition to concerns regarding their safety should they escape from their living space, it’s also important to consider their safety while exiting (or attempting to exit) the space. Attempting to jump or climb over a fence could result in injuries such as lacerations, puncture wounds, or leg injuries. Similarly, a resident attempting to squeeze under a gate or fence could become stuck or injured on their way out. Goat residents may be able to climb or jump over a fence you assumed to be appropriately tall by using other elements of their living space as a launching-off point. For example, jumping on top of a wall-mounted feeder or a play structure may give them just the boost they need to make it over a nearby fence.
Goat residents may be inclined to jump or climb into hay feeders – If goats are able to get into their hay feeder, this may become their preferred way to eat – who doesn’t want to lounge in a comfy spot surrounded by food? Unfortunately, depending on the feeder design, this could put them at risk of physical injury. Additionally, goats who get into their hay feeder are likely to urinate and defecate on it. Not only does this lead to soiled hay, but it can also put residents at risk of exposure to certain diseases.
Recommended Action Steps:
- With the exception of elevated spaces intended for your residents, find ways to prevent them from accessing elevated spaces such as shelves or lofts (or, alternatively, take steps to make these spaces safe for them to access).
- Think carefully about how high fencing and other barriers need to be to prevent a motivated goat resident from jumping over them. Depending on your setup, you might want to have a plan in place should your current setup prove insufficient for a high jumper! How easily could you make modifications to the space if needed?
- Similarly, be sure to consider gaps under fencing, gates, and walls and whether or not a resident could squeeze through these gaps. Keep in mind that a gap that is currently too small may grow in size after flooding or years of erosion, so regularly checking physical infrastructure is imperative.
- Living spaces should be regularly monitored for areas that require maintenance in order to properly keep residents contained and to prevent injury. Similarly, be sure to carefully consider the placement of elements that could be used in an escape, such as hay feeders, play structures, etc.
- When introducing goat residents into a space they have not previously lived in, be sure to spend time observing the individuals as they get settled in to make sure they do not try to escape. If they show signs of wanting to jump, climb, or crawl out, we recommend taking steps to prevent this (such as making modifications to the space or moving the individual back to their previous space until modifications can be made).
- Consider keeping areas where grain/concentrates are stored closed and secured to help ensure that a loose goat will be unable to gain access and gorge on grain/concentrates.
- Try to find a hay feeder that residents cannot jump or climb into or find ways to prevent them from doing so. We’ll talk more about this in Part 2.
Goats Can Be Rough On Fencing, Structures, And Other Elements Of Their Living Space
Compared to similarly-sized sheep and even some larger species, goats have a reputation for being rougher on physical infrastructure, particularly fencing (doubly so if said fencing separates them from another group of goats or something they very much want access to). We already mentioned that their propensity for resting their front feet on fencing can cause damage. In addition to this, some goat residents may spend a significant portion of their day rubbing their horns against fences or structure walls, maybe going so far as to repeatedly slam their horns against them. If they detect a weak spot or a loose piece of wood, they may focus their energies on that spot, perhaps removing loose boards or turning a small tear in fence mesh into a much larger hole.
When considering their safety, caregivers should keep the following in mind:
Goats require robust fencing – Because of how rough they can be on fencing, you may find that your goat residents require more robust fencing than what you use for some of the other species at your sanctuary. While all goat fencing should be robust, fencing that separates goat herds requires additional attention. Goats who do not live together but who share a fence line may spend a significant portion of the day headbutting the shared fence. Depending on the size and strength of your residents, as well as their persistence, withstanding this abuse may be a lot to ask of even the most robust of fences.
Goat fencing and other physical infrastructure may require more frequent maintenance than infrastructure for some other sanctuary species – Because of how rough goats can be on physical infrastructure, frequent evaluation and maintenance is key. Damaged elements of the living space could result in injury, entrapment, or escape, so it’s important to catch and address these hazards quickly.
Recommended Action Steps:
- As emphasized earlier, make sure fencing is robust and able to withstand typical goat wear and tear. Heavy-duty materials are a must!
- Regularly evaluate fencing and other physical infrastructure for areas that require fortification. Rather than waiting for obvious signs of damage, consider adding a note to your calendar to thoroughly check goat living spaces at specific intervals.
- If you can, try to avoid having separate goat herds share a fence line, but if this is not possible, be sure to carefully consider if the shared fence line needs to be reinforced in order to withstand the frequent headbutting that may occur on both sides of the fence.
As you can see from above, there are many ways in which goats may find themselves in a situation another species wouldn’t. By taking into account some of the ways in which goats are uniquely at risk, caregivers will be better equipped to eliminate or mitigate safety hazards. Because there are many safety considerations to be aware of when choosing a hay feeder, we’ll take a closer look at hay feeder safety in Part 2.
Who’s Coming To Dinner: Another term for farmed animals; different regions of the world specify different species of farmed animals as “livestock”. Eating Habits And Their Effects on Grazing Management | Oregon State University (Non-Compassionate Source)
Grazing Preferences Of Sheep And Goats | Nebraska Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)