When I tell people we sell goats, the next question is usually 'what kind?'. When I tell them I sell Tennessee Fainting goats, I usually get a blank stare or a faint recollection of 'having heard' of that kind of goat before. Other common names used to describe this unique American breed include nervous goats, wooden-legged or stiff-legged, and scare-dy goats.
The goats originated in 19th Century Tennessee when an itinerant farm hand, said to originate from Canada, showed up in Marshall County, Tennessee, with 3 does and a buck that were noted to 'faint' when startled. A year later this mysterious man moved on but only after selling his goats to a local country doctor, who was interested in examining this unusual neuromuscular disorder, Dr. Mayberry.
Tennessee Fainting goat is a bit of a misnomer - they actually have a congenital myotonic disorder, commonly referred to as Myotonia congenita, which in medical latin, is pretty non-specific. These goats don't actually faint, they stiffen and often fall over, hence the association to 'fainting'.
I usually refer to them as myotonic goats, as I feel this most accurately describes their condition.
When in a stiffened or down position, these goats are completely awake and aware of what's going on around them.
The molecular exact nature of their neuromuscular disorder has been studied and is not well-understood. Myotonia congenita in goats appears similar in many ways to diseases in humans and other animals sometimes referred to as channelopathies, including Thomsen's Disease and Becker's Myotonia congenita. These human disorders are characterized by painless, persistant muscular contraction following voluntary muscle contraction, and muscle hypertrophy. Cardiac and smooth muscle is not affected. We have more information on the exact nature of these disorders because humans that have these disorders can describe what and how they feel. We do not have this luxury in our goats.
Myotonic goats are highly variable in appearance and come in all sizes, shapes, hair lengths, and eye color. The breed standard boils down to two important qualities - the presence of some degree of myotonia and the proper ear set, what I typically call 'helicopter ears'. A certain bug-eyed appearance is also considered classic for the breed but is not required.
A classic description might describe a black & white goat with spotting or a belt, 'helicopter' ears, bug-eyed, and myotonia. Myotonics could be described as both a composite and a landrace breed. In other words, they are a mixed breed originating from those initial four animals but bred with other local breeds of the time, most significantly the Spanish goat, another heritage American breed.
Landrace refers to a breed that developed in geographic isolation. Those formative years in the hot, humid summers and mild winters of Tennessee means that myotonics now have a relatively high resistance to parasites like the barber pole worm as compared to other breeds like the Boer.
Myotonics are classified as a meat goat because of their tendency to have hypertrophied musculature giving them a higher meat-to-bone ratio (3:1) than a normal meat goat (2:1). This translates into more meat on a smaller skeletal frame than what would be normally expected for the size of the animal. Some chefs say they have exceptional flavor and texture as well, which might also be related to their myotonia. They are listed on the ALBC's Arc of Good Taste.
Myotonic goats also make excellent pets. They do not climb fences and have a sweet, friendly disposition.