If you own goats, chances are you have probably observed them eating some pretty questionable things by now. At least, questionable by our standards.
Tree bark, twigs, and other seemingly inedible things are all on the menu for goats, but perhaps the most nerve-racking and questionable of them all are thorns, prickles, and spines on plants.
Watching your goat happily wolf down blackberry brambles or entire roses is a visual you won’t soon forget. Why do they do it? More importantly, how? How exactly do goats eat thorns?
Goats manage to eat thorns through a combination of careful technique and especially adapted mouth tissues. They break blunt thorns with their teeth as they eat, and the thick, tough tissues of their mouth and tongue protect them.
Truly, and I don’t say it lightly, watching goats gobble up severely thorny plants that would easily draw blood makes me feel a little light-headed. But they do it all the time with no ill effect.
Pretty fascinating, to be sure, but there’s a lot more to know about this interesting proclivity of theirs. Keep reading to learn more.
Goats are Surprisingly Delicate, Dexterous Eaters
You may not think of goats as delicate creatures, but when it comes to eating, they can be quite dainty and precise.
When grazing on thorny plants, goats will use their lips and tongue to pick off leaves and small stems while avoiding the thorns, and then rely on their teeth to break off stems, thorns and all, before chewing them up and swallowing them.
This time-tested technique is surprisingly effective and allows goats to eat a wide variety of plants that would be off-limits to other animals.
As you have likely already guessed, goats are specially adapted for this sort of hazardous eating (to us!) from long experience as a species.
Their tough lips and tongue protect them from getting punctured, and their teeth are specially adapted for breaking off and crushing thorns.
Goats’ Mouths are Much Tougher than Yours and Mine
One of their most worthwhile adaptations for eating tough, abrasive, or downright sharp plant matter is in the tissues of their mouths.
All mammals have tough, keratinized tissues in their mouths to protect against the wear and tear of a lifetime of chewing, but goats’ mouths are even more heavily reinforced than most.
The hard palate, for example, is the hard roof of the mouth that separates the oral cavity from the nasal cavity.
In goats, this area is thick and especially tough, which helps to protect against thorns and other sharp objects that may be encountered while eating.
Even the configuration of their mandible and the surrounding cheeks is setup in such a way that they are unlikely to inadvertently puncture themselves while grazing or chewing.
Thorns Won’t Generally Penetrate a Goat’s Gums or Tongue
Similarly, the gums of goats are also tougher than average, and not particularly sensitive to abrasion, helping to further protect the delicate tissues of the mouth.
Finally, the tongue of a goat is also quite different from most other mammals. In addition to being relatively insensitive to pain, it is also amazingly tough and leathery.
This adaptation helps to protect the tongue from injury while munching on thorny stems or rough bark.
Goats Chew Thorns to Blunt Them
But where the rubber meets the road, er, thorn meets the mouth, is in a goat’s chewing technique.
Not only do goats have physical advantages to avoid getting punctured by thorns, but they also take pains to blunt the thorns before swallowing them. How, you might ask? By chewing them up good, of course!
That’s right, as a goat chews its food prior to swallowing it will grind up, snap or generally blunt the thorns prior to consumption using the long rows of molars and premolars on either side of its mouth.
This is primarily responsible for preventing any serious mishaps like thorns getting stuck in their throat or digestive tract or piercing the somewhat more vulnerable tissues of the rumen or the rest of their innards.
It might give you and I cold sweats watching a razor-sharp rose stem disappear into their mouth, but you can relax knowing that goats are equipped for it.
Since Goats are Ruminants, they Get Multiple Opportunities to Chew Up Thorns
Of course, it’s not just the chewing that does the trick when it comes to goats and thorns. As ruminants, goats have a four-chamber stomach that ferments food prior to digestion. This process gives them a chance to thoroughly break down their food – including any thorns – before they ever reach the intestines.
The first chamber of the stomach, called the rumen, is specifically designed for this purpose. It’s a large, sack-like chamber where food is stored and fermented by bacteria before it moves on to the next stage of digestion.
During this fermentation process, tough plant fibers are broken down and softened, while any indigestible materials (like thorns) are eliminated.
This means that by the time the food reaches the intestines, there’s very little risk of any sharp objects causing serious damage.
This action is further enhanced by the fact that goats can regurgitate and rechew their food, giving them an extra chance to break down anything that might cause problems further down the line.
This is done with the objective of extracting maximum nutrition even from tough plant matter, but it can also help deal with the leftover remnants of any thorns.
In summary, goats are able to eat thorns without issue because of a combination of physical adaptations and digestive processes that allow them to safely consume plants that would be off-limits for most other animals.
So next time you see a goat munching away on a prickly bush, you can rest assured knowing that they’re equipped to handle it with no problem.
Only the Gnarliest Thorns Pose a Challenge for Goats
Like all general rules of thumb, there are exceptions, and the same can certainly be said for goats eating thorns.
Most of the thorny, spiny stuff that you and I would have to don gloves to handle, at the least, is no trouble for goats. But there are some plants that are just too tough for even the hardiest of goats to digest.
For example, some varieties of acacia trees have long, sharp thorns that can grow up to two inches long in some cases.
These fearsome-looking thorns may or may not stop a goat from trying to steal a nibble, but they can cause serious damage if ingested.
Similarly, the leaves and stems of certain cacti can also be problematic for goats. While the thorns on cacti are usually not as long or sharp as those found on acacia trees, they can still cause problems if a goat tries to eat them.
Cactus thorns are often subtly barbed, meaning that they can lodge themselves in a goat’s throat or digestive tract if swallowed. This can cause serious irritation and even infection if not removed quickly.
Other prickly powerhouses include porcupine tomatoes, firethorn and pyracantha bushes, and yucca plants.
These plants all share one thing in common: long, sharp thorns that can cause problems for any unsuspecting goat who tries to take a bite.
Common Prickles Like Blackberry Bushes, Roses and Such are No Problem
Thankfully, most goats aren’t going to encounter any truly nightmarish thorny plant, or at least ones that they might have been interested in eating in the first place.
For the most part, the thorns that goats are likely to encounter on a daily basis are nothing more than common garden-variety prickles.
These include blackberry bushes, roses, and other similar plants. These thorns may be sharp, but they’re usually not long or tough enough to cause any real trouble for a goat. Don’t act surprised if your goats wipe them out down to the ground.
If a Goat Does Not Want to Eat Thorny Food, Don’t Force Them
Lastly, there is only one thing you need to keep in mind: if your goats don’t show interest in a thorny plant, don’t try to force it upon them.
Goats are not terribly bright, but generally pretty good at knowing what’s good for them and what isn’t. If they’re not interested in eating something, it’s probably best to just leave it be.
Chances are if a goat is uninterested in a plant, it’s because they can tell that it would be too much of a hassle to eat. “Better safe than sorry” is the right idea when it comes to feeding your goats.
Tom has built and remodeled homes, generated his own electricity, grown his own food and more, all in quest of remaining as independent of society as possible. Now he shares his experiences and hard-earned lessons with readers around the country.
Find out more about the team here.