Will Goats Eat Anything? Can They? Should They?

In popular culture, goats are associated inseparably with the notion that they can and will eat absolutely anything: Anything that is conceivably considered food and a whole lot of things that aren’t.

a goat eating poison ivy
a goat eating poison ivy

You probably even heard that goats will eat tin cans, rubber, and all sorts of other seemingly indigestible things! But this can’t be true, can it? Can they really eat anything they want to, and if they can, should they?

No, goats can’t eat just anything. Goats have specific nutritional requirements and foods that are ideal for them. Not all foods are good for them, and they cannot safely consume any indigestible object.

The reality of a goat’s diet doesn’t really match up with the legend. While it’s true that goats might eat anything that’s tempting for them, and nutritional or calorie deficiencies will see them do all sorts of ill-advised things, they do have particular food requirements.

If you own goats, or are thinking of getting a herd to call your own, this is critical, need-to-know stuff. Keep reading, and I’ll tell you more in the rest of this article.

Goats are Surprisingly Picky Eaters in Most Circumstances

What is bound to surprise you the most if you don’t already own goats is that they are remarkably picky eaters. It’s true!

The popular conception is that goats will eat absolutely anything as described above, and more generally, that they will wolf down anything that’s edible as soon as they get close to it.

While it is true that goats have big appetites and spend a lot of their time eating or looking for good things to eat, they won’t eat just anything in most circumstances. That’s because goats are browsers, which are distinct from grazers.

Grazing animals, like cows and sheep, tend to go along eating grass and low-growing vegetation over a long period of time. Browsers, by comparison, eat a wider variety of material and often eat only the choice bits from plants that are up off the ground before moving on to something else.

Make no mistake: goats are still herbivores and can eat only plant matter safely and efficiently, but their usual menu is surprisingly diverse under ideal conditions.

goat eating a hole orange
goat eating a hole orange

Goats Will Eat Almost Anything if Hungry Enough

I should also point out that goats can, and will, try to eat anything if they’re really hungry, including foods that aren’t good for them.

Whereas most goats will subsist on leaves, twigs, shoots, a little bit of grass, and other choice nibbles of plant matter if they are hungry enough they’ll start eating grains, vegetables, fruit, and a whole lot more.

Part of this is because goats are fairly adventurous eaters by nature and are always keen to try something new and interesting, but much of the behavior is instinctive because they lack calories or have specific nutritional deficiencies, be it vitamins or minerals.

This exploratory behavior can be prevented by ensuring that goats have a well-rounded diet but also an interesting one, so they don’t get bored.

If you don’t do that, things can get even worse, and they’ll start showing undesirable and dangerous eating behavior. I’ll tell you about that in the next section.

Goats Should Never Eat Inedible Things

There is a grain of truth to the stereotype that goats can eat literally anything, including inedible materials like:

  • ✘ rubber
  • ✘ metal
  • ✘ stone
  • ✘ wood
  • ✘ dirt
  • and more.

I myself have watched goats eat dried paint flakes and plastic on more than one occasion! This behavior actually has a name, pica, and it commonly affects goats that are severely malnourished or very hungry.

In such a state, goats will eat all kinds of things that will injure or kill them, from dirt, pebbles, and porcelain to cloth, metal, and more.

No, this isn’t some superpower that goats have: it is a desperate instinct to get the nutrients that they critically need. Basically, the goat’s brain is signaling that something, anything, will be better than getting nothing.

Of course, if you have even the most basic understanding of biology, you know this is a terrible outcome and is only going to cause a severe injury for a goat, to say nothing of furthering the malnutrition.

Bored and Stress Goat Might Start Eating Self-Destructively

Something else to keep in mind is that goats that are extremely stressed or just very, very bored might resort to this behavior also!

Your goats might be getting everything they need in their diet normally and still fall prey to pica. This is one of the reasons why goats are considered a “high workload” type of livestock!

There’s always going to be lots you need to do and there’s so much more that can go wrong with them concerning their eating behavior.

Not All Foods are Good for Goats

So, back on track with a goat’s usual diet. We know they are herbivores, and we know they like a variety of good foods.

This means they can always eat various plants, fruits, and vegetables, right? Regrettably, no, it does not!

Goats need certain items in their diet more or less constantly, but other things that are nominally healthy might be only be a limited component of their diet. Eating too much of otherwise good stuff could cause problems…

This is because goats, being ruminant animals, have complex and sensitive digestive systems. The things that a goat eats will sit in a compartment, the rumen, for fermentation and subsequent digestion.

This is how it goes, and similar animals derive maximum nutrition from foods that ordinarily have very little to offer.

This is only possible because of an intricately balanced “gut ecosystem,” of sorts, made up of bacteria and various other microorganisms that perform the fermentation and subsequent pre-digestive processes.

Too much bad stuff in the diet, like sugar or protein, can throw these organisms out of whack and make a goat badly sick or, in severe cases, potentially even kill them.

Even Good Foods Can Cause Problems for Goats!

If a goat has an imbalanced diet consisting of too much of the wrong kinds of food, even healthy foods, bloating will often occur.

Bloating is a painful and sometimes deadly buildup of gas in the goat’s digestive tract. Much of the time, a goat cannot clear this gas by itself, and it will require an intervention from you or from a vet.

This can commonly occur when domestic goats are fed too many snacks, when their usual diet is changed abruptly, or when they are simply getting too much of a macronutrient or too much sugar in their diet.

Both wild and domestic goats that forage can also experience bloat and other issues if they eat food that is too wet, if they eat too many legumes that are found growing, or other tasty things that are nonetheless a bad idea.

Suffice it to say, goats can’t safely eat whatever, whenever- in case that wasn’t clear enough by now!

What are Some Things They Eat When Foraging?

In the wild or in captivity, goats will eat all sorts of things when foraging, including all kinds of weeds, various flowers, leaves, pine needles, branches, twigs, buds, and a lot more.

They’ll also eat various plants in the legume family as an important source of protein, namely clover, alfalfa, and others.

Goats can even eat thorny plants like roses with no worries because they have incredibly tough mouthparts. Even things like vines and ivy are on the menu for them!

Every now and then, they’ll eat various root vegetables that are exposed or close to the surface and a variety of seeds.

All of these things are good for goats in moderation, or as a supplement to their usual diet of feed and hay.

a goat trying some popcorn
a goat trying some popcorn

Surprising Foods that Goats Can Safely Eat

You don’t have to be terrified of the things that your goats can, or might, eat. Some things seem truly outrageous but are nonetheless safe for goats in limited quantities! Many of them are even things that we snack on ourselves…

For instance, goats can have popcorn as a treat. It should be plain, unsalted popcorn with no other toppings, but they love the stuff and it is a decent source of energy for them. And the same way, they also enjoy and can have various kinds of crackers or a little bit of bread.

Banana peels seem totally disgusting and indigestible, but for whatever reason, goats absolutely go bonkers for them, more than the banana itself if you can believe it!

Goats can also have a little bit of honey now and again (even though it is pretty much just sugar), various kinds of tree nuts (except walnuts), and different kinds of fruit as long as the quantities are kept small. Again, anything that’s very sugary must be fed only on a strictly limited basis.

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