Domestic goat

Class: Mammalia
Order: Artiodactyla
Family: Bovidae
Genus and Species: Capra hircus
  • Two pale brown goats with short curved horns, and scattered black markings
  • A goat laying down to rest on a platform with grass in the background
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Domestic goat

A versatile domesticated animal, goats are kept for meat, milk and fiber products. Intelligent, social and difficult to herd, goats easily revert to a feral, or wild, lifestyle. The Smithsonian's National Zoo exhibits three different breeds of goats: Nigerian dwarves, Anglo-Nubians and San Clemente Island goats.

Physical Description

There are three different kinds of domestic goats: there are breeds used for dairy, meat and fiber. More than 200 domestic breeds of goat are recognized.

Goats may have horns of the scimitar or corkscrew types, but many are dehorned at an early age to prevent injury to other goats and handlers. Goats may also be polled (genetically hornless).

Goats can have short or long hair and curled, silky or coarse hair. They may have wattles on the neck, and beards. Some breeds have straight noses, while others have convex noses or slightly dished noses. Ears may be erect or drooping, small or large. Goats come in almost any color: solid black, white, red, brown, spotted, two- and three-colored or blended shades. They may also have distinct facial stripes or black and white saddles, depending on the breed.

The color of a goat's eyes varies, with the most common color being yellow or brown. Their pupils are rectangular.

Nigerian Dwarves were first registered by the International Dairy Goat Registry in 1981, Canadian Goat Society in 1985, American Goat Society in 1983, and finally the Nigerian Dwarf Goat Association in 1997. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy listed Nigerian Dwarf goats as rare in 2000, but they are now in the recovering category thanks to so many new breeders.

The Nigerian dwarf is the only true miniature goat breed of dairy type and character. Its conformation is similar to that of the larger dairy goat breeds, only smaller, meaning that the parts of the body are in balanced proportion relative to their size. The profile of the face is straight or slightly dished. The ears are alert and upright. The coat is straight with short to medium length hair. Dwarf goats come in many colors with the main color families being black, brown and gold. Random white markings are common, as are spots and other color combinations.

Anglo-Nubian goats were developed in England by crossing British goats with bucks of African and Indian origin. The Anglo Nubian is an all-purpose goat, useful for meat, milk and hide production. The Anglo Nubian breeding season is much longer than that of the Swiss breeds so it is possible to produce milk year-round. In 1909, six Nubian bucks and eight does were imported into the United States. The Nubian quickly became popular because of its docile temperament and high milk fat content. Nubian numbers surpass all other dairy breeds in the United States.

The Nubian is relatively large and has a graceful appearance. Distinguishing features are long, wide, pendulous ears, a convex nose and short, sleek hair. They have short, glossy hair ranging from black through shades of red to white, with spotted or dappled patterns. Nubians are one of the heaviest and tallest breeds of goat. The average doe weighs 130 pounds (59 kilograms) and bucks weigh 175 pounds (79 kilograms) or more. A mature, female Nubian will be about 30 inches (76 centimeters) tall, while males are about 35 inches (89 centimeters).

The San Clemente Island breed developed naturally when domestic goats were allowed to run feral on San Clemente Island, located 68 miles (110 kilometers) west of San Diego, California. The exact genealogy of San Clemente Island Goats is a puzzle but it is believed that they were brought to the island from neighboring Santa Catalina Island in 1875 and it was from these Spanish goats that the San Clemente Island Goat developed.

In 1934, the US Navy took over ownership of San Clemente Island and in 1972, a census found that there were between 15,000 and 18,000 goats on the 57 square mile (91.7 square km) island. These feral goats were causing devastation to the island's natural ecosystem. In order to restore the natural habitat of the island, the Navy began goat-eradication programs starting in the mid-1970s that would continue until the island was completely goat free in April 1991. During this time some 6,000 live animals were returned to the mainland to be re-domesticated, however many of the males brought were neutered, so only a small breeding population survived. San Clemente Island Goats are one of the rarest domestic animal breeds in the world. Currently there are estimated to be only about 250 San Clemente Island Goats worldwide and they are designated as being critically endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

The San Clemente Island Goat is a small breed, with bucks averaging a height of 23.6 inches (60 centimeters) and does a height of 22.4 inches (56.8 centimeters). This small size is most likely a result of insular dwarfism from adapting to island life. Coloration patterns are consistent, with all individuals having a tan to dark-red base color with black markings. San Clemente Island Goats are lean and considered to be 'deer-like' in their graceful movements. Both male and females have horns and it is not uncommon for females to have supernumerary teats (extra teats on udder, typically having four in total).


The goat is one of the smallest domesticated ruminants. Goats vary from as little as 20 pounds (9.1 kilograms) in weight and 18 inches (45.7 centimeters) tall in the mature female dwarf goat, to 250 pounds (113.5 kilograms) and 42 inches (106.7 centimeters) in height for Indian Jamnapari, Swiss Saanen and Alpine.

Native Habitat

Domestic goats are members of the Bovidae family, which includes gazelles, African antelope, bison and other domesticated species such as sheep and cattle. Goats, along with sheep, were among the earliest domesticated animals. Goat remains have been found at sites in western Asia dated around 7,000 B.C.. Domestic goats are primarily descended from the Bezoar goat, Capra aegagrus, except for the Angora, Cashmere and Damascus breeds, which descended from the Markhor, Capra falconeri.

Food/Eating Habits

The digestive tract of the goat after nursing has the typical four stomach compartments found in ruminants. The intestinal canal is about 100 feet (30.5 meters) long. This allows better absorption of nutrients from grass and other roughage.

In the goat, the lips, teeth and tongue are the primary grazing tools. The lips of goats are most important in grabbing feed, allowing the goat greater selectivity in its grazing. Mastication (chewing) is necessary for the reduction of feed to smaller particle sizes. Because the upper jaw is wider than the lower jaw, only one side of the mouth can be used at a time to grind the feed. This causes an accentuated lateral (sideways) movement of the jaws while chewing. These lateral movements result in the molars developing a sharp, pointed surface on the inner edge of the lower teeth and on the outer edge of the upper teeth.

It takes about 11 to 15 hours for feed material to pass through the goat's digestive system. The ruminant digestive system of the goat works non-stop throughout the adult life of the animal. Other animals have digestive organs and secretions that alternate between periods of stress and inactivity, while the goat must continually manufacture digestive juices and enzymes 24 hours a day.

Goats have been classified as intermediate selector feeders. This means that they have preferences that include many different plants. Although goats have a higher nutrient requirement than larger ruminants, they are good browsers and can selectively utilize a wide variety of shrubs, woody plants, weeds and briars. Unlike sheep and cattle, goats can also survive on bushes, trees, desert scrub and aromatic herbs.

In a pasture situation, goats are "top down" grazers. They start to eat seed heads or the top of the plants and progressively take the forage down. This results in uniform grazing. Goats do not like to graze close to the ground. Grazing goats have been observed to select grass over clover, prefer browsing to grazing, graze along fence lines before grazing the center of a pasture, and refuse to graze forage that has been trampled and soiled.

The goats at the Zoo receive mixed grass twice daily.

Social Structure

The behavior of a goat can vary widely depending on factors such as breed, surroundings and size of the herd. Generally, goats are very sociable, lively, inquisitive, and independent animals. They are intelligent and quick to learn good and bad habits, such as opening gate latches. A goat's natural curiosity may lead it to investigate newly found items by sniffing and nibbling, but goats will quickly refuse anything that is dirty or distasteful. Goats can climb, run, crawl, and some breeds are able to jump heights of over five feet. Most goats will also stand on their back legs to reach tree branches and shrubs.

They cannot be herded as well as sheep can, but instead tend to disperse or face strangers and dogs head-on. If given a chance, goats can easily revert to feral or wild condition.

Reproduction and Development

Many goat breeds are seasonal breeders, being influenced by the length of daylight. Goats typically reach sexual maturity at six months of age.

In temperate zones, does begin to cycle in the late summer and show signs of heat (estrus) for one to two days about every 21 days, through January. The strongest heat cycles occur from November to January. Nearer the equator, goats come into estrus throughout the year, thus more than one litter per year is possible because the length of pregnancy is five months. Birth weights of female singles are between 3 to 7 pounds (1.36 to 4.1 kilograms). Typically, twins will be a pound lighter and males 0.5 pound (0.23 kilograms) heavier. Twinning is normal in goats, with a high percentage of triplets, giving several breeds an average annual litter size above two per doe.

Sleep Habits

The pupil in a goat's eye is rectangular rather than round. It is believed that goats have excellent night vision and will often browse at night.

Two female Nigerian dwarf goats named Fiesta and Fedora live at the Kids’ Farm. Dwarf goats’ coats come in many shades of black, brown, and tan. Fiesta’s coat is white with black spots, and Fedora’s coat is black and brown.

Mortimer and Marla are the Zoo’s San Clemente Island goats brother and sister duo. These are a small breed; males average 24 inches tall and females average 22 inches tall. Their coats are both tan with dark markings, but Mortimer has a distinctive white spot atop his head.