HISTORY OF MYOTONIC GOATS

 

MYOTONIC GOATS: A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE AND BREED CHARACTERISTICS

The uniqueness of Myotonic goats has given rise to many different colorful names. Throughout the years they have been called the Tennessee goats, Fainting goats, Nervous, Stiff-Leg, Wooden-leg, Fall-down, Scare and Tennessee Meat goats. All these names are used to describe goats that are Myotonic and express the gene for Myotonia Congenita. Myotonia Congenita is a hereditary neuromuscular condition which causes the muscles of these goats to become stiff, or lock up when excited or startled. If the goat is running or becomes off-balance while in the process of ‘locking up’ they may fall over with legs in the air! After a few seconds, their muscles relax, they jump up and go on their way as if nothing ever happened! The goats do not pass out or lose consciousness as in fainting, but instead remain awake and alert through the stiffening of their muscles. There are also varying degrees of Myotonic expression. Myotonia does not affect the lifespan of the goat. Different species of animals share this same gene for Myotonia. Although very rare, Myotonia Congenita has been documented in humans. It is called Thomsen's or Stiff-man Syndrome. Myotonia can also be found in Tumbler pigeons, mice & sheep. On an interesting note, it can sometimes be induced in humans by the use of cholesterol lowering drugs. Myotonia is a neuromuscular condition.

 

The first recorded goats with Myotonia within the United States date back to 1880 in rural Tennessee. In the early eighties an old man named John Tinsley appeared at J.M. Porter's farm near Caneyspring in Marshall County, Tennessee. He brought with him what he called a sacred cow and four goats that stiffened and sometimes fell over if startled. It is told he wore a small fez-like hat and spoke with a brogue. He wore strange clothing and where he was from remains a mystery to this day. Dr. H.H. Mayberry of Marshall County, Tennessee offered to buy the four goats. He was refused but in the fall of that same year Tinsley brought the goats to him and sold them for the sum of $36.00. After the purchase, Tinsley worked on the farm for about three weeks but would never eat at the table. He always took his meals in the barn where the sacred cow was kept. After this, Tinsley went to Lick Creek in Maury County, Tennessee. He married an old lady by the name of Barnhill. On her farm, he made an excellent corn crop. One night after the crop was in, he left with his sacred cow without telling his wife, and was never heard from again. The goats held by Dr. Mayberry were three nannies and a billy.

From these first original goats, Mayberry raised a number of others and sold them in different parts of Tennessee and Kentucky. The goats filtered their way throughout the southern states. A few people kept them separate from other breeds of goats or tried to preserve the original type animal. Many others simply ran them with their own herd of goats. Not all farmers had fences in the south and many of these goats also intermingled freely with the local herds producing offspring with the Myotonic gene and so introducing other genetics into the breed. These goats were once a common sight on the backroads of the South. Many studies and experiments on Myotonia and the hereditary aspects of the gene were done throughout the history of Myotonic goats. These are too numerous to list. Highlighted events, along with some descriptive writings were documented. The following is a historical timeline of the breed:

1904 was the earliest scientific documentation found on the goats. George R. White, State Veterinarian of Tennessee along with Joseph Plaskett, were the first to scientifically describe Myotonic goats. White had secured a pair from a farm in Maury County, TN, near the region where they were said to have first appeared. Later, in approximately 1923, R.J. Goode wrote he had acquired one pair of goats from Dr. C.A.Cary, State Veterinarian of Auburn, Alabama. He reported the two he purchased from Alabama to be of usual size and varied color markings, indistinguishable in appearance from the ordinary goat. The only difference he noticed in his was the Myotonic characteristic. In 1928 Robert V. James acquired his first Myotonic goats, he was 20 years old. It was wrote he had acquired his goats from the late W.C. Taylor who was a Jefferson City undertaker. Taylor had brought them from middle Tennessee to Jefferson County, where James purchased them. Mr. James said, "He's kept the breed strain pure since". It was reported that Mr. James preferred and kept only the black and white goats.

In approximately the mid 1930's R.J.Goode wrote an article titled "Epileptic, Fainting, Nervous, or Stiff Legged" Goats. The article has a direct quotation from Dr. H.H. Mayberry himself telling the story of the four original goats he had bought from Tinsley. By the1930's and 1940's Myotonic goats were reported to have been taken to Texas. Later, it was told that the goats were used as sacrificial animals to save the sheep from coyote attacks. Other Myotonic goats who ran with the local herds also fell prey to coyote attacks. Not everyone knew of Myotonic goats. Sometimes farmers would find stiff-legged goats within their herd and culled them at local stockyards thinking something was wrong with them. Myotonic goats became increasingly rare and their numbers dwindled. In 1987 the American Tennessee Fainting Goat Association (ATFGA) was formed to register the goats. In 1988 they were declared endangered and put on the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy's Watch List. And in 1989 the International Fainting Goat Association (IFGA) was also formed to register the goats.

When the Myotonic goats were put on the Conservancy's Watch List as endangered, it sparked the interest and efforts of people who became dedicated to the preservation of this animal and its gene. Faced with high demand and soaring prices, people sought out Myotonic goats. Few remained, and in an effort to preserve the gene for Myotonia, this breed was further crossed with other breeds. A trend for the smaller size, colorful and highly myotonic goats began and was of interest to many in the exotic pet markets. Many folks located in the north and midwestern United States bred them as small unique pets for this market. Other breeders in areas of the south and southwestern United States kept them for their meat and production qualities. Due to the limited numbers, sporadic location and pet market interest, many breeders did not actively pursue good conformation and sound genetics in their breedings. Oftentimes all bucklings were sold as breeding stock. With so many different types of Myotonic goats, conformation should be a primary concern.

There are all different sizes, shapes and types of Myotonic goats. This is due to selective breeding and crossbreeding throughout the last hundred years. While all these goats may appear quite different from each other in appearance, shape, and build; they all share the same gene for Myotonia and are Myotonic animals. Some types have been cultivated for hair qualities. Some were bred for small size. Others were bred for dairy qualities. Some were bred for meat/production qualities. Others were bred for color qualities. They range from small to large breed size in height. Muscling and structure vary with the different types. They range from heavier and well-muscled, to small and deer-like in structure. Some breed seasonally, or once a year, others breed aseasonally or year-round.

The gene for Myotonia is hereditary. It is a recessive gene, meaning that the first time a Myotonic goat is crossed to another breed of goat which is limber, the resulting halfblood offspring are also limber but do carry the gene within them. The second generation (F2) cross (back to a Myotonic goat) will produce stiff and limber offspring. Some people feel that limber goats should be considered part of the Myotonic breed. If the goat is not Myotonic, it is a regular limber goat. There has been some debate over this issue. My advice would be to ask the breeder to guarantee that the goat will show Myotonia before it is purchased.

The question is often asked if Myotonia makes these goats more susceptible to predators. Any goat will fall victim to a predator if they are being targeted. In our area, even the young calves are fair game for predators. Many farms employ the use of livestock guardian dogs to protect their animals. Myotonic goats are quiet animals and are not known to be a vocal breed. I personally feel that the goats evolved this way. While most goats run when faced with danger, these goats simply froze... leading those within the breed to evolve as quiet and elusive creatures. However, there are some differences in lines and families of goats which may have to do with background influence of the goat.

The different types of Myotonic goats today make this a diverse and fascinating breed. With such diversity in size and body styles, Myotonic goats are a multi-purpose animal. The smaller sizes with their mirad of colors make wonderful pets and are an interesting conversation topic. The long hair and cashmere types are not only gorgeous but can provide hair and cashmere for use. Testing by Forte' Cashmere Company, Inc of New York have shown the cashmere to be between 15-19 microns. The long hair types are striking with long human-like hair that flows to the ground. Because the hair is so long, this type does require frequent maintenance and extra care if the hair is to be kept up. There are also some Myotonic goats that hold more Dairy character and can provide a supply of milk for the family. These are perfect for families who want a supply of milk, but less volume than a regular milking dairy breed. Some Myotonic goats feature beautiful blue eyes. Others sport patterned tri-colors. The heavier muscled types are sought out by the meat goat industry. Their primary roles are for fine breeding stock, and they are being used in crossbreeding programs with the Boer breed to produce fine market animals.

Myotonic goats are a very loving, gentle breed of goat. They may be horned, polled or disbudded. The horns of this breed may be left on. Horns are also a cooling system, or way of distributing heat which is a benefit to goats located in the southern and southwestern states. We leave the horns on the bucks as well. This breed is so gentle and mannered that we are able to keep bucks of different ages together in a field without worrying the older bucks will harm the younger ones... even with the does flirting at the fence. Myotonic goats do not jump or climb on things (such as your brand new car or outside patio furniture) as other breeds of goats do. They simply walk around and stay out of trouble.

The Myotonic goats have many other great qualities. They have excellent mothering instincts and are fiercely maternal. They are easy kidders and it is rare to have birthing problems. Twins and triplets are common. Testing by the Universities has shown some genetic resistance to the stomach worms and Myotonic goats are considered one of the most parasite resistent breeds. They are also efficient browsers and require little supplemental feeding to maintain their condition. They are a hardy breed not requiring extra care or pampering. Some Myotonic goats are more muscular than other breeds. The Myotonia acts as an isometric exercise for their muscles, such as a professional body-builder would have. By having Myotonia, some have powerful muscular bodies. Testing has also revealed a better meat-to-bone ratio than other breeds of goats. These characteristics are transmitted to some degree in the crossbred offspring, especially offspring which are Myotonic themselves. Myotonic goats are easy to catch and work with. They do not jump and do not require any special type of fencing to keep them in. These goats are people oriented and are very sweet. A person need not bottle feed these goats to make them friendly. The kids are by nature 'lap babies' and love to be held. Myotonia starts its expression early, Myotonic episodes have even been documented in utero. The kids usually start showing their Myotonia around a couple weeks of age or earlier.

The impact of past breeding and crossbreeding has lent changes to some traits. Some traits that have historically been a part of this breed have changed and already been lost in some lines. The qualities that have traditionally been the foundation of the goats need to be preserved and cultivated in future breedings. Some of these traits are: parasite resistance, hardiness, feed efficiency, maternal instincts, ease of kidding and perhaps even their non-vocal tendencies. Myotonic goats are animals where everyone bred for what they wanted in the animal. Even the Fainting goat associations use a descriptive term for 'pop' eyes or bulgy eyes as distinguishing facial features in their standard. Personally, we have found this to be more a feature of the exotic bred types. Breeders and potential owners need to arm themselves with information and choose a well-thought out breeding program.

With so many different types, the question is often asked what type were the original four. It was told they were Myotonic, of medium size, black and white, heavily-muscled meat type goat. Some breeders choose to breed for this type, other breeders choose to breed for other types. As mentioned before, Myotonic goats are a multi-purpose caprine. If a person is searching for the history of their goat, they need to go back through the breeders and breedings. All Myotonic goats ultimately trace back to the original four from Tennessee. All the different types of Myotonic goats are special and unique unto themselves. For those wanting to get started into the breed, my advice would be to search out the type of Myotonic goat you want, for the purpose you are wanting it for.. and go from there. Myotonic goats are the most gentle, loving breed of goat we have ever raised. We call them the family goat and they are good stress relievers. With so many different kinds, the choices are endless. But whether it be a colorful pet or breeding stock, conformation should be one of the most important factors, regardless of type. This said, there is a Myotonic goat out there for everyone! Become a part of raising these unique goats! ~~~~~~~~~~~


by Lisa Johnson

 

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