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Understanding Defects in Goats
By: Phillip Sponenberg
The issue of conformational defects in goats can be a confusing one - and can become especially controversial when different philosophies of goat breeding and rearing come into contact with one another. What one breeder considers a defect may well be considered a harmless variation by another. A few of the more common variations are outlined here, with the consequences for goat breeders.
If it is important for you that your goats not have one or any of these variations, be sure to ask sellers for information. If a seller considers some of these variations to be trivial, they may have honestly not looked all that hard for them, and may inadvertently sell you a goat that they think is perfectly good but that you might find objectionable. Be sure to ask!
It is possible to list any defect, or special characteristic, on MGR registration descriptions. So, bucks with a small cleft in the scrotum, or animals with teat spurs, should all be identified as such on the registration application. That helps everyone to keep track of these things.
Split or cleft scrotum
A split scrotum is the presence of a cleft between the two testes in the scrotum. That is, the skin of the scrotum has a cleft between the two testes, so that rather than one pouch with a smooth bottom there is a division between the two halves. Most breeds, and most breeders, will accept up to a one-inch cleft between the two halves, but consider anything more than this to be a defect. Obviously, no cleft is best.
The problem with severe clefts is that at the extreme end of the variation are scrotums that are basically cleft clear to the base, so that each testis is in its own individual scrotum. This is usually associated with a defect in the penis, where the opening is up behind the scrotum instead of the usual place. These animals obviously cannot reproduce. Selection against any degree of cleft is an attempt to avoid producing these impaired animals.
While no firm evidence is available, many breeders also insist that cleft scrotums in males are also associated with poor mammary attachment in females. To the extent that this is true (and it is unproven) then selection for normal scrotal conformation is indeed important. Other breeders maintain that clefts in the scrotum are associated with multiple teats, although this is likewise unproven.
A cleft of one inch between the halves is a minor defect. Be sure to ask the seller about any clefts in the bloodline if this defect is important to you and your herd.
Multiple teats, teat spurs.
Multiple teats and teat spurs are controversial in goats and have different significance in different goat breeds. Breeders of dairy goats penalize these variations very heavily. Many meat goat breeders totally ignore the issue.
Multiple teats are just that - an extra teat or two, which may or may not connect to functional mammary tissue. Many of them do not connect to milk producing portions of the udder - so they are pretty useless to a kid that latches on to one. Teat spurs are smaller structures, usually nonfunctional, that branch off of a main, functional teat.
The importance of these variations in dairy goats is that they can make milking tough or impossible. For other goats, the main significance is that kids can initially be confused about which one to suckle to get the life-giving colostrum. In severe cases, multiple teats and teat spurs can be numerous enough to impair the kid latching on and getting a full share of milk.
The genetics behind multiple teats/spurs is not straightforward. It seems to be a situation of several genes each contributing some to the final appearance of the udder. This is much different than the way single dominant or single recessive genes go through a herd - and is much more difficult to predict and control. There is no easy answer.
In my own experience, the inheritance of the multiple or spurred teats is indeed complicated. I have had a few does with these. Out of several kids that these does produced, only one had the same defect. Does with teat spurs were always mated to bucks with normal conformation. Alternatively, a very excellent doe I have - with correct teat conformation - has produced four drop dead gorgeous four teated bucks! This doe has correct teats, her dam has correct teats, and her grand dam had correct teats. The genetic control of this characteristic is complicated!
The question becomes "what to do?" and that can be broken down to "as a breed" but also to "as an individual breeder." Extra teats and teat spurs are defects, but are not incredibly important for non-dairy goats. It is prudent to decrease the frequency of these teat defects, but not at the expense of completely eliminating otherwise good breeding stock. Some people will disagree with this philosophy, which is fine.
As an individual breeder it does not bother me to use the occasional multiple teated or spurred does or bucks. Such an animal would have to offer me something else pretty special, and I would certainly be open about the teat conformation of any doe or her ancestors to any customer! Breeders vary widely in their acceptance of this defect - and breeders who desire completely clean pedigrees should ask about the teat conformation of ancestors of goats they are considering buying. I do think that only superior animals with these defects should be used, and that only normal-teated offspring (both does and bucks) should be retained from does with these defects.
Obviously, if a multiple or spur teated doe has a doeling offspring with a similar defect, then this is a tougher call. I would only use such an animal for very specific purposes, and would probably try to avoid linebreeding with such an animal. I am personally willing to use animals that I would not necessarily sell as purebred breeding stock, usually on a limited experimental basis. This is an individual decision, and others could well arrive at a different conclusion. I personally have used and will continue to use a small number of multiple or spur teated does. My goal is to retain normal offspring from these in an effort to not lose the other good traits those does have.
This is a controversial defect, and some breeders may find my approach somewhat casual and horrifying. Another extreme view would be that all multiple teated and spurred animals should be sold only as pets. Different philosophies are actually healthy for a breed and its breeders. I do not ignore the defect, and work to diminish its severity and its frequency. At the same time, in most goats with the defect it is a minor problem that does not interfere with function, and goats that are otherwise excellent have much to offer the breed as well as my own herd.
Some people consider polled (genetically hornless) goats to be defective. This is usually because of the risk of intersex or hermaphrodite kids from these goats. This risk has to be put into a proper context for breeders to appreciate what is going on.
Polledness in goats is dominant, and goats with two doses of the gene are masculinized. The end result, if you work out the results of the cross, is that a polled goat mated to a polled goat (nearly all of these only have one dose of the gene) will produce the following:
1/8 of the kids will be normal, horned males.
In many populations of goats the 1/8 that are hermaphrodites are so completely masculinized that they appear to be males, and so are counted in amongst those. When that happens, the result is a kid crop that is 5/8 male, 3/8 female.
Mating polled to polled is the worst-case strategy, and still provides 3/4 normal kids. Mating polled goats to horned goats completely eliminates the production of the hermaphrodites, and so is a safe way to use and enjoy polled goats. That is, with appropriate management there is basically no risk to breeding polled goats. Some breeders like them, some do not, and this variation is really trivial rather than a serious defect. Most importantly - breeding management makes these goats perfectly useful with no risk.
The polled goats with two doses of the genes are usually very round-headed with no protuberance where horns would have been. While head shape can be misleading in some instances, in most cases it does help to pick out the goats with two doses of the gene.
Wattles are little tubes of skin that hang down from the goat's neck, or occasionally from other places. I have seen them behind the ears, or in one case at the corner of the mouth.
Wattles cause no problem in and of themselves, but are controversial in the Myotonic goat breed because some people think that these are only present in dairy goats, and that their presence indicates crossbreeding in the background of the goat.
I have seen wattles in a few old-time herds in Tennessee and Texas. These were never very many of the goats in a large herd. To my eye, and from the history of the herds, the wattled goats appeared to be as purebred as the rest of the herdmates.
Opinions on wattles will vary. Some breeders do not want any wattles in their herds; others consider them to be interesting variations with little significance. Their presence in some few goats in older herds indicates that they are not necessarily due to crossbreeding with dairy goats.
Short ears, as are typical of the La Mancha breed, are not typical of Myotonic goats. I have seen one short-eared purebred in a traditional herd. This can be expected to come up time to time just due to new genetic variation. This ear type is outside of the standard, though, and should be discouraged.
Leg conformation weaknesses
Conformational weaknesses such as sickle hocks, posty legs, cow hocks, weak pasterns and other defects like them are seen in occasional myotonic goats. These are all defects of “degree” in goats, and some people will tolerate minor degrees of them. At which point they become defects is going to vary from breeder to breeder. All of these do detract from longevity and usefulness of goats, and so all should be discouraged.
Sickle hocks are hocks with too much angle from the side. This defect usually reflects a general weakness of conformation, and these animals usually do not wear their feet normally. As a result they usually have long, overgrown toes. They also "break down" earlier than soundly conformed goats and are generally weak.
Cow hocks are hocks that deviate inward when viewed from the rear. A little of this is pretty typical of Myotonic goats as well as most other adapted breeds. Too much, though, is very weak. Cow hocked goats tend to have very poor feet that need frequent trimming.
Weak pasterns are those with too much angle right at the fetlock. Goats should have fairly upright pastern angles. Too much angle is weak, and these animals are rarely rugged enough to survive to old ages. When the angle is very collapsed the result is a "coon footed" goat - which is very weak indeed.
These leg defects all tend to result in overgrown hooves, largely because the hoof is not worn down because the goat is not using its legs normally. The key here is that any goat with overgrown feet may be indicating that it has a higher problem as well. Some overgrown feet are limited strictly to the feet - but many of them have higher problems as well.
In addition to overgrown hooves are overgrown dewclaws. These happen in only a few goats, but are annoying when they do.
Horn set can easily be a problem, especially in bucks. Mature bucks should ideally have at least one and a half inches of space between the bases of the two horns. Much less than this, and they are able to catch an opponent's leg between the horns - and can snap it easily. Some bucks learn to do this deliberately, and are a real threat to the other animals in the herd. Close-set horns should be avoided whenever possible.
Bite problems usually consist of a lower jaw that is too short (under bite or undershot jaw) or too long (over bite, or overshot jaw). The short lower jaw is pretty rare, but the long lower jaw is more common. Sometimes these are called "monkey faced" because the unusual jaw conformation can look somewhat monkeyish.
The problem with abnormal bites is that the teeth wear abnormally, and the goat is not able to forage correctly. As a result, bite problems interfere with longevity through inadequate nutrition.
A wry, or crooked, nose is a nose that deviates to one side or the other. The consequence of this is usually similar to that of the bite problems - the teeth fail to meet normally, and this can cause problems for the goat. This defect, at least in cattle, is not genetic - but it still needs to be avoided for the benefit of the goats. Affected goats simply cannot meet their needs as well as conformationally sound goats do.
Goats sometimes have a dip in the topline, usually about halfway from the withers to the croup. This can rarely directly cause problems, but is more an indicator of general weakness overall.
Slope of croup
The slop of the croup towards the tail is important. In most "improved" breeds the goal is a level and flat back that carries clear to the tail. This is, unfortunately, a fairly weak conformation, and usually goats do better when there is a moderate angle from the back to the tail. The key here is "moderate" because too much steepness is also weak. Both extremes should be avoided.
Covering up defects
Two things can help to cover up defects - and cautious buyers are advised to be alert to these. One is fat! Fat goats are usually smoother and sleeker than nonfat goats - but a thick fat layer poses very real health and production risks to goats. It is sometimes difficult to evaluate a fat goat for fine details of conformation.Color patterns can also be misleading to the eye. A very unusually marked goat can be really difficult to "see" as to the fine points of conformation. All the observer notices is the loud color! It always helps to imagine that the goat is solid black or solid white - and then evaluate the goat under the color.
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