Do you get shocked easily? Startled, or scared? This Halloween, let’s take a look at an animal that goes way beyond that: the famous Tennessee fainting goats. Also called myotonic goats, they stiffen up and fall over when they get startled. While this may make for a funny YouTube compilation video, does this negatively affect the animal in any way? Let’s find out in this blog.
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When us humans faint, we lose consciousness due to a lack of oxygen delivered by the blood to the brain.
The cause could be related to the heart and blood vessels themselves, low blood pressure, or a disruption of neural activity in the cerebral cortex. This is not the case with fainting goats and, despite their names, they don’t actually faint at all. In fact they retain consciousness during the entire ‘fainting’ episode.
Myotonic goats are prone to an inherited neuromuscular disorder known as Myotonia congenita. This is characterised by an inability to relax skeletal muscles after a voluntary contraction (it is this event that is known as myotonia). Their skeletal muscle membranes have an abnormality that makes them hyperexcitable. So when they contract it can take longer for these muscles to relax afterwards. Therefore when our goat friends receive a bit of a shock and their muscles tense up in a fight or flight response, it takes a few seconds for them to recover to normal from their frozen state.
So do the goats feel pain when they ‘faint’ like this?
We know already that they don’t lose consciousness and so they are aware of it happening. But does it hurt them? The answer is not an easy yes or no. It is of course far less convenient when the goats involved can’t communicate this information to us directly. However from their behaviour it seems that it does not seem to bother them too much. And they don’t seem too distressed by the event. Most goats will just stand up and keep on doing whatever they were doing like nothing even happened. It would be a different matter however if the goats were to seize up whilst on top of something, and fell off in a way that hurt themselves, or if they fell onto something sharp and cut themselves.
Humans can have this condition too, so what about them?
Interestingly though, some humans with myotonia congenita do describe symptoms of muscle pain, stiffness, painful spasming and cramping. If we were to infer similar symptoms for goats then it could be possible that they feel a more chronic discomfort from their stiff muscles as opposed to, or perhaps as well as, the acute pain that you may initially suspect from the fainting episodes themselves.
Goats are prey animals and so it could be possible that they are good at masking behavioural signs of pain if they do feel it. But it is likely that it would be slightly different for each individual anyway.
To truly know if they feel discomfort from their faints, we would need to take a look at biochemical indicators of pain or stress, such as glucocorticoids (like cortisol) or catecholamines (e.g. adrenaline). This would involve taking interval blood samples, and as of yet has not been studied in Myotonic goats.
To conclude then, fainting goats do not faint at all but are actually experiencing prolonged periods of muscle contraction and paralysis related to a congenital condition. Whilst their behaviour indicates that they are not suffering from this phenomenon, it is hard to say for certain that they are not feeling some level of discomfort. They unfortunately cannot tell us themselves how it feels, and as prey animals goats tend to mask any discomfort well.