Pygmy Goats Angling to Take Dog's Place as 'Man's Best Friend'

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 

Pygmy goats
Pygmy goats are a breed of domestic goat native to West Africa. Fuse/Getty Images

Long a staple at petting zoos for the friendliness and adorable antics, pygmy goats have earned more recent recognition as the animal partners for yoga enthusiasts. They've been deemed so lovable, in fact, that they're making a play for becoming man's new best friend (watch out Fido!).

But unlike the family dog, even small goats are barnyard animals, so anyone looking to welcome pygmy goats as pets might not want to keep them in the house, and definitely not on the furniture!

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History of Pygmy Goats

Pygmy goats are a breed of domestic goat native to West Africa, specifically the Cameroon Valley, which accounts for their original name of Cameroon dwarf goat. Their scientific name is Capra aegagrus hircus, which just refers to being a domesticated goat, a process that started around 11,000 years ago, making them one of the oldest domesticated animals.

Bred for their smaller size, pygmy goats were primarily used for their milk and meat with the advantage that they could be maintained in smaller spaces, so they required less land, explains Bree Winchell, keeper and program animal specialist at the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon.

Pygmy goats left Africa for the West around the mid-20th century, making a new home at Swedish zoos. From Sweden, they spread to England and Canada, according to the Oklahoma State University Department of Animal Sciences. By 1959, the first pygmy goats arrived in the United States at the behest of the Rhue family in California and the Catskill Game Farm in New York. They have since been typically used at zoos, for medical research and as pets. Of course, now they can also be found helping adventurous yogis with their asanas.

Pygmy goat and kids
A female pygmy goat reaches puberty and can get pregnant at as young as 2 to 4 months of age.
Gavin Parsons/Getty Images

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Pygmy Goat Characteristics

Most recognized for their diminutive stature, pygmy goats are shorter and stouter than breeds like Alpine and Nubian goats. Whereas some goats can weigh up to 200 pounds (90 kilograms), pygmy goats top out at around 70 (31 kilograms), with the average weight more like 50 pounds (22 kilograms), and between 18 and 22 inches (45 and 55 centimeters) tall. That puts them roughly equivalent to a medium-to-large dog, like an Australian shepherd, for example.

During thousands of years since their domestication, goats have served many purposes. Since the Neolithic era (10,000 to 4,500 B.C.E), humans have used goats for their milk, according to Open Sanctuary. Goats have been a source of meat and fiber, too. Smaller, calmer goats breeds, who are friendly toward humans, like the pygmy and Nigerian dwarf goats, may have been bred for one of these purposes. But they have made their mark in another aspect of human life.

"In the U.S. [pygmy goats] are primarily used as pets and in zoo settings," Winchell says. "If you have been to a petting zoo, you probably have pet a pygmy goat."

These cuties have a coat of straight, medium-long hair that varies in density depending on the season and home climate, according to the Oklahoma State University Department of Animal Sciences. On adult males, abundant hair growth is admired, especially their full beard, while females have smaller beards that may be trimmed. Pygmy goat fur takes on a "grizzled" pattern due to the mixing of light and dark hairs.

Pygmy goats are similar in size and temperament to Nigerian dwarf goats, so they may be confused by an untrained petting zoo visitor. However, pygmy goats are heavier boned with a wider, square appearance, according to Cruz Nigerian Dwarf & Pygmy Goats. Nigerian dwarf goats' "appearance exudes dairy character." They have a slimmer look with a longer neck.

"Nigerian dwarf goats are a miniature dairy goat, and pygmy goats are a miniature meat goat," Dianne Cassara of Double Durango Farm says via email. "[They are] two distinct and different breeds, but both are similar in size and cuteness!"

pygmy goat kid
Pygmy goat kids need companionship, so if you plan to adopt one as a pet, it's better to adopt a small herd instead.
Mike Hill/Getty Images

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Welcoming Pygmy Goats as Pets

Although pygmy and Nigerian dwarf goats are often kept as pets today, anyone interested in adopting one should keep several important care requirements in mind. First, adopting just one is a bad idea. Second, although they are small, they need plenty of adequate pasture to be happy and healthy.

"They still need lots of space to stretch their legs and live in a group," Winchell says. "Their herd mentality means that they really need that social structure, and they have a social hierarchy."

In fact, if the interested goat-parent has enough space and resources, hosting a small herd is best. At Oregon Zoo, six goats has been a good baseline number to keep in the petting zoo. That allows for the goats to create their social hierarchy and for various generations to mingle. Just like children keep grandparents young, older goats engage differently when kids are present.

Pygmy goats are herbivores and require a nutritious diet. At Oregon Zoo, they eat a hay and pellet diet. Because goats are browsers — meaning they like to eat off plants — the horticulture staff cuts branches for them, and the goats enjoy pulling leaves to eat and gnawing on the branches.

"That's really important for their overall gut health," says Winchell.

In addition to this green diet, pygmy goats need a clean, fresh area to relax. Winchell recommends using hay or shavings for their bedding because it's easy to clear out and replace. Pygmy goats also need a place to shelter when the weather is bad, some sort of indoor area dedicated to them, and that should not be the garage and definitely not a spare bedroom in the house. Because goats cannot be housebroken.

"There is no litter training a goat," Winchell says. "We spend a lot of time cleaning for our goats." Like most hoofstock, they have no control over their bowel movements — they just go while they are walking around.

However, with a lot of training, pygmy goats can be taught to urinate on cue, Winchell says. It's one type of training they have implemented at the Oregon Zoo, where they have also taught goats to kneel, spin, stay and allow their feet to be picked up for hoof care. Winchell says that pygmy goats are smart and can learn a lot with positive reinforcement.

Speaking of hoof care, keeping hooves trimmed regularly and keeping vaccinations up to date are important aspects of having goats, according to Cassara. These may not be tasks your dog's vet can take on. Any backyard farm animal requires a vet who specializes in farm medicine.

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Yoga With Goats

Thanks to their small size and friendly nature, pygmy and Nigerian dwarf goats have become the participants of choice for goat yoga, a trend that's gained popularity for several years. They are friendly and comfortable around people, says Winchell. They also like to stand on tables, so the young ones also like to hop on the backs of yogis doing positions like a cat-cow flow. Meanwhile, adult goats "will love and snuggle you with all their heart," according to Original Goat Yoga.

Whether you're interested in starting a home yoga practice or simply want to live around some of the cutest animals out there, having pygmy goats as pets requires the same level of commitment — they live for about 15 years — as any other four-legged friend, or maybe more.

"They are a lot of work, and that social aspect and training is really important for them," says Winchell. "With any animal you would have in your life, it's really important that that relationship be strong."

goat yoga
Pygmy goats and Nigerian dwarf goats have become popular animal companions during yoga sessions, as they frolic and climb among students.
Portland Press Herald/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

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