Posted by Jennifer Sartell, Professional Homesteader & Blogger, Wed, Aug 5, 2015; updated Fri, June 23, 2023
The old joke that goats will eat anything, even a tin can is not only incorrect but misleading. It leads us to believe that goats have stomachs of steel and can digest anything put in front of them.
The truth is that a goat will “taste” many things—including zippers on hoodies, ponytails and much more—if given the chance. Goats like to explore the world using their mouths. They can eat brambles, thorn-covered raspberries and even poison ivy without ill effects to their health.
But, in actuality, a goat’s digestive system is very delicate and easily upset. Just because they WILL eat anything doesn’t mean they SHOULD.
To understand a goat’s digestive system, let’s first go into the wild. Picture the wild goat. Images of a white, bearded animal, horns intact, balancing on the side of a steep mountain cliff might come to mind. The only vegetation in the scene might be a straggly bush hanging on for dear life in the crack of a stone. That straggly bush is the key to a goat’s diet.
Goats are grazers, but not in the sense of fields and fields of lush grass. Goats are designed by nature to be constantly on the move, searching for bits of food, twigs leaves and plants that they nibble as the herd moves forward. Their rumen is designed to digest small amounts of food constantly. The goat fills up when it can because in its rocky habitat, it might not know when the next meal is coming. It gains minerals from the mineral-dense rock in which scarce vegetation grows, and worms are not as much of an issue because the herd is not confined to a particular grazing area, so the worm cycle doesn’t concentrate.
When we take goats out of these natural surroundings and place them in a farmyard, it’s easy for a goat’s digestive system to become unbalanced.
Now let’s move inside the animal.
The word “rumen” is often used to describe the entire digestive system of a goat, when in actuality it is one of the four chambers that make up the goat’s “stomach.”
Chambers of a Goat’s Digestive System
- Reticulum – A chamber of the rumen that works with the esophagus during cud chewing
- Rumen – A fermentation chamber in which bacteria break down particles of food and make the nutrition available to the goat
- Omasum – The first chamber of the goat’s “true” stomach
- Abomasum – This chamber is most similar to our stomach in that it uses acids to break down food particles into absorbable molecules
Information found on: Goatbiology.com and Goat-link.com
If your goat’s rumen is working properly, you should be able to hear a wave of gurgling every 45 to 60 seconds. Those are fermentation gases moving into the upper part of the rumen.
What is Cud Chewing?
After our goats eat, they often settle in for a nice leisurely lie down. With their tummies full of hay, they’ll curl up and chew their cud. When goats chew cud they will chew and chew, usually with a ball of something in one cheek of their mouth or another. They’ll often belch, and if you happen to get close their breath will smell like fermenting hay. Then the goat will swallow. They might wait a few seconds, then regurgitate the ball (you’ll often see it slide back up the throat) and begin chewing again. By chewing cud, the goat is breaking down their food into smaller and smaller bits and mixing it with saliva, which begins the digestion process.
Normal Goat Pellets: Goat droppings should consist of hard, solid, oval-shaped pellets. They should be dark brown in color and separated, meaning not clumped together.
Scours: Diarrhea in goats
Anytime the bacteria balance in a goat’s digestive system becomes out of whack, diarrhea can occur.
There are many causes for goat scours. Scours can sometimes indicate serious illness and if left untreated can cause dehydration, organ damage or death. It’s important to know what steps to take to treat scours and when it’s time to call the vet.
Below is a list of causes that can bring on scours in goats.
- Lush Grass. Fresh green grass might look like the ideal setting for a hungry goat; however, too much grass or very wet grass will often cause scours. If given the chance, goats will gorge themselves on grass (remember that they have the instinct to fill up when they can); they don’t realize that this pasture will still be available to them tomorrow, so they will eat and eat. The goat’s system isn’t designed to process such a moisture-rich food. The quantity will often overload the bacteria’s ability to digest the grass and the goat will get scours.
- Grain. Just as with grass, goats will often eat as much grain as they can get. They just can’t resist the sweet, molasses-covered oats and will become quite clever in figuring out how to get to the grain can. Grain is a great tool for getting goats to cooperate. It keeps them still on the milk stand or during shearing. It will also encourage your goats to come to you, which can be good if they’re somewhere they’re not supposed to be…like the garden (wink, wink). However, too much grain will overload the bacteria in the digestive system and result in scours.
- Rich Hay or Alfalfa Hay. Hay is the key to balancing a rumen. It is the closest “farm-raised” food that mimics what a goat might find in the wild. But, if a goat is suddenly switched from a browner hay to a rich green hay, it will upset the rumen. Too much, or a sudden addition, of alfalfa hay can have similar results. Introduce these food items gradually.
- Baby Goats Switching Milk Types. Just as in adult goats, if you switch kids from goat’s milk to formula or cow’s milk, it can upset the stomach and cause scours.
- Inappropriate Food. Just as dogs shouldn’t eat chocolate, there are foods that are bad for goats. “Treats” should be formulated specifically for goats. I recommend treating with Manna Pro® Goat Treats, a fun and nutritious snack in flavors goats love!
Bad Foods for Goats
- Chicken feed
- Leaves, bark, fruits and pits of stone fruits such as cherries, apricots, peaches, plums, etc.
Consult your veterinarian for more information on items that are poisonous to goats.
- Parasites. Goats carry parasites. According to our vet, the parasite load should remain below 5% to be healthy. If your goat has a high worm load, it might lead to scours. An excellent dewormer is Manna Pro Positive Pellet® Goat Dewormer. This medicated product will not result in a withdrawal period when fed to milking goats.
- Cocciodosis. A protozoa that causes diarrhea. It is especially harmful to young goats and can be deadly if left untreated. Humans can also get Cocciodosis, so be sure to take sanitary precautions. If your goat suddenly develops scours for no apparent reason (e.g., a change of diet, etc.), it’s important to have a stool test done to look for Cocciodosis.
- Illness. Diarrhea is a symptom of several goat illnesses, including Johne’s disease.
How to Treat Goat Scours
- Fresh clean water to prevent dehydration
- Electrolytes alternated with clean water, or both—I recommend Manna Pro Goat Electrolyte, which supports hydration and optimal fluid balance in scouring goats
- Quarantine your goat to keep other goats clean and prevent a possible disease from spreading
- Keep bedding clean. Clean several times a day if necessary. Wash down the goat to keep flies away. Wash your hands well, as humans can get Cocciodosis too
- Probiotics will help balance the rumen by introducing good bacteria
- Baking soda will help balance the acids and fermentation gases in the goat’s digestive system
- Feed grass hay
- Cut out or limit grain
- Provide your veterinarian with a stool sample
Our Routine with Scours
Please consult your veterinarian regarding an appropriate plan for your animals.
We keep our goats on a fairly consistent diet. We hay our own field, so our hay quality is pretty regular. The grain is measured and each goat fed according to their needs. Goats that are in milk receive more grain than wethers, bucks, etc. Our goats are given access to grass hay at all times. If one of our goats gets scours, we usually know why. Sometimes in the spring, when they are first released on pasture, a few will get diarrhea even if I limit their time exposure. It depends on how wet the season is, or how lush the grass grows that year.
Sometimes they will accidentally ingest too much grain—perhaps because we fed a bit too much during shearing or while clipping hooves. Sometimes, when we increase the amount of grain offered to goats that are pregnant or in milk, it upsets the tummy even though we’ve been careful about doing it gradually.
Often these situations will lead only to either a clumpy poop, in which the pellets stick together in a tube-shaped dropping, or a mushy poop with the consistency of pudding. If that’s the case, we limit grain and feed only hay until it passes.
If the stool is watery, I offer electrolytes in addition to fresh clean water. Once again, Manna Pro Goat Electrolyte is an excellent choice. I also give them probiotics. If I don’t see improvement within 12–24 hours, I call the vet for a stool sample check. Your vet will be able to tell you if you need a specific wormer for a troublesome parasite or if further action needs to be taken. Do not let scours go. It can take down an animal very quickly!
How to Prevent Goat Scours
- Offer free-choice access to baking soda
- Offer grass hay at all times
- Develop a good worming regimen. We worm every season, or more often if the animal needs it. Check eyelids for anemia and alternate wormers so parasites don’t become resistant
- Engage in regular stool checks with your veterinarian
- Limit pasture time until their systems can adjust
- Introduce new foods slowly and increase grain rations gradually
- If you switch feed brands, gradually add it to the grain you already feed
- Keep bedding clean to limit parasites and disease
- Quarantine new animals that come to your farm until they are deemed healthy
Consistency is key to keeping your goat’s rumen healthy. Be aware of change, note what causes scours in your herd and react accordingly. Know that each goat is different; what works for one may not agree with another’s system. With a bit of preventative measures and a plan for handling unexpected problems, you will continue to keep a happy, healthy herd.