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Safe Cohabitation Considerations For Goats

A goat nuzzles with a sheep inside.
It’s important to understand who goats are and what they need when considering living arrangements and social groupings. While Panza goat gets along well with Colvin sheep, not all goats can live safely with sheep. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

This resource has been fully reviewed and updated by a member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s team as of December 13, 2021.

Because every resident is a unique individual, it’s difficult to offer specific guidance regarding safe cohabitation with members of other species. However, there are certain species who may be more likely to safely cohabitate than others, and in some cases there are species combinations that are best avoided entirely due to potential safety risks or care needs that are too different. In order to make responsible, informed decisions about living arrangements and social groups for any species at your sanctuary, it’s important to consider who they are, generally, as a species, what their needs and preferences are, and also to consider who they are as an individual. Additionally, you’ll want to think about any safety risks they could potentially pose to another species and vice versa. Below we’ll discuss important things to keep in mind when considering living arrangements and social groupings involving goats. In addition to the information below, you’ll need to consider the specific needs of the individuals you are considering housing them with.

Social Considerations

Goats are social animals who have evolved to live in herds with other goats. Living in herds can help provide protection from predators, and even in settings where individuals are not at risk of predation, living with other goats can offer a sense of security. Though some individuals may be more independent and be comfortable venturing away from their herdmates while foraging, living in isolation and being separated from individuals they are bonded with can cause significant distress. With this in mind, we recommend giving goat residents the opportunity to live with other goats whenever possible. However, it’s important to offer residents enough space and resources- overcrowding and competing for resources can result in unhealthy herd dynamics.

It’s important to consider individual personalities and monitor interactions between residents, as some goats may be too playful or confrontational to live with goats who are smaller, elderly, skittish, disabled, or health compromised, and some individuals simply may not get along. If a goat resident is unable to live with other goats, it will be important to give them the opportunity to bond with a companion(s) of a different species while ensuring everyone’s safety. Similarly, if due to spatial constraints you are considering housing your goat residents with residents of another species, you will need to do so thoughtfully.

Further Reading
Sometimes you need to consider separating an individual from their companions due to a health issue. You can read more about considering alternative living arrangements due to a health concern here. Also, be sure to check out Creating An Enriching Life For Goats for enrichment ideas to utilize during times when someone must be away from their companions.

Dietary Considerations

Goats, like sheep and cows, are ruminants. Some ruminant species (such as cows) are grazers, others are browsers, and some are a mix of both (intermediates). There is some debate as to which category goats and sheep fall into- depending on the source, goats might be classified as intermediates or browsers, and sheep might be classified as grazers or intermediates, but even when both sheep and goats are classified as intermediates, there is still an acknowledgment that sheep are more grazers than browsers and goats are more browsers than grazers. 

While goats also eat grasses and other pasture plants, these are not their preferred food, nor is a diet consisting primarily of grasses natural for them as browsers. If available, goats will primarily eat browse (twigs and leaves from woody plants, vines, brambles, shrubs, and trees). Despite this fact, goats are sometimes lumped together with sheep when it comes to dietary needs, with goats being treated as predominately grazing animals. Not only does this not honor their natural behaviors and preferences, it can also put goats at an increased risk of parasitism. As predominantly grazers, sheep forage with their head down for the majority of the time and will often eat pasture all the way down to the ground. Goats, on the other hand, eat plants higher up off the ground, sometimes even standing up on their hind legs to reach desired browse. This difference in foraging behavior seems to have affected how sheep and goats have evolved in terms of resistance to certain parasitic infections such as barber pole worm. Overall, sheep tend to develop a stronger immune response to barber pole worm infections than goats. If allowed to browse, goats would be exposed to far fewer of these parasites than what sheep would be exposed to, so they may not have developed the same type of immune response as sheep, leaving them more vulnerable in settings where they have to graze on pasture for the bulk of their food.

It can be difficult for a sanctuary to provide as much browse as a goat would naturally eat, especially in the winter months if there isn’t much vegetation and grass hay is the primary food source. It’s not uncommon for sanctuary goats to rely more heavily on grasses than they naturally would, but it’s important to incorporate as many browsing opportunities as possible and to recognize that goats are not inherently grazers. While some individuals may require supplemental food, a healthy, mature sanctuary goat resident should primarily eat fresh forages in the form of quality browse and pasture or dried grass hay, and this is the best diet to promote healthy rumen function. Some forages, such as alfalfa, increase the risk of urinary blockages in neutered male goats and should be avoided or seriously limited. Unless there is a specific reason not to do so, offering unrestricted access to forage is recommended. Therefore, housing goats with individuals who should not have unlimited access to forage or who require a different type of forage can be challenging.

Hay Feeder Safety
Be wary of hay feeders designed for horses, as certain styles can pose the risk of entrapment for goats, particularly wall-mounted styles with tapered vertical bars that have wider gaps towards the top that narrow at the bottom. A goat may fit their entire head in the gap at its widest point but then become trapped when they bring their head closer to the ground. We’ve heard devastating stories of goats dying as a result of getting stuck in these feeders- either from strangulation or breaking their neck trying to free themselves- so we recommend avoiding these types of feeders in areas where goats live.

In addition to forages, goats typically require supplemental minerals, either in loose or block form. Minerals formulated for goats may not be safe for other species. For example, goat minerals often contain copper levels that are toxic to sheep. If goats and sheep are living together, they will all need to be on a sheep-safe mineral formula to prevent copper toxicity in sheep residents. However, sheep minerals could result in copper deficiency in goats, so you may need to carefully supplement your goats with additional copper (without accidentally exposing your sheep residents to the copper). Be sure to work with your veterinarian or a nutritionist to determine the best supplementation for your residents. 

Access to concentrates or pelleted food designed for other species can result in gastrointestinal issues and urinary calculi. Therefore, it will likely be easier to house goats with other species whose diet consists primarily of fresh or dried forages than it will be to house them with species whose meals consist of pelleted food or concentrates. While it may be possible to create a separate feeding area for species requiring these types of food, keep in mind that goats are notorious for getting into places they shouldn’t, so this arrangement may not work well for goats. 

For more information on your residents’ dietary needs, check out our species-specific Daily Diet, Treats, And Supplements resources.

Housing Considerations

Like other residents, goats need a place that can keep them cool in the warmer months, warm in the colder months, and that provides plenty of ventilation. Goats tend to be a bit more sensitive to the cold than other ruminants, so you may find that a space that keeps cows or woolen sheep comfortable leaves goat residents shivering. Coats can help keep residents warm, but if you find you can’t keep both your goat residents and whomever they live with comfortable in a shared space, you’ll need to separate them to provide both species with the ambient temperature they need. 

Unlike most other mammalian farmed animal species, goats are climbers and may stand on their hind legs to reach something they want. Goats are notorious for chewing on, and even ingesting, things they shouldn’t, so it’s imperative that their living space be set up so that they cannot reach things that are not safe for them such as electrical cords, insulation, etc. It’s also important to look around the space for objects they could climb on (and to include these thoughtfully). Certain features that are important for other species may be turned into toys and climbing opportunities for goat residents, which could pose a safety issue. Some sanctuaries use straw bales to create nesting areas for bird residents, and goats may climb on or rearrange these bales, which could be very dangerous for the birds.

When it comes to outdoor living spaces, it’s important to note that goats can be a bit rougher on fencing than some other farmed animal sanctuary residents. Depending on the type of fencing, climbing on fencing to reach tasty browse plants or to say “hello” to someone on the other side can result in bent and crumpled fencing that no longer provides the same degree of protection. Constantly slamming against fencing can cause damage that needs repair (they can be similarly rough on structure walls, so make sure they are solid enough to withstand this). Not only is it frustrating and time-consuming to have to repair fencing, damaged fencing could also cause injury to residents or increase the risk of entrapment. Of particular concern are horses who may get a hoof caught in damaged fencing and then panic, further injuring themselves. Breaks in fencing could allow smaller residents to leave the safety of their living space and could allow certain predators to enter the space. 

Goats require protection from predators, and in some regions, they may need to spend the night secured within their indoor living space in order to keep them safe. If housing them with other species, be sure to consider if there are concerns associated with closing them in with goats overnight, as individuals will have a harder time getting away from each other (consider both the risk to the goat and the risk the goat poses to others). Also keep in mind that while goats do require protection from predators, bird residents are vulnerable to a variety of smaller predators that are not a concern for goats, and therefore require more robust predator proofing.

For more information on your residents’ housing needs, check out our species-specific Creating A Good Home resources.

Safety Considerations 

When considering mixed-species social groups, be sure to consider any potential safety risks. Depending on personalities, circumstances, and your setup, housing goats with larger species such as cows, pigs, or equines could pose a safety risk to goats, but there’s more than just size differences to consider. A growing calf, while closer in size to a goat than a mature cow, could pose a safety risk if they are overly playful or if they are a male who may be interested in mounting goats. Also consider the risk a goat could pose to smaller residents such as chickens, turkeys, ducks, or geese if they were to accidentally step on them or if the goat tried to play with the smaller resident.

As a general rule, we don’t recommend housing dogs with goats. A dog could seriously injure a goat and, as prey animals, even just the presence of a dog may cause your goat residents distress, regardless of whether or not they are actually in physical danger. In some instances, there could be a risk for the dog as well- a goat or group of goats who feels threatened may go after a dog and could seriously injure them depending on their size.

What About “Livestock Guardians”?
It’s not uncommon to hear about certain species being housed with others in an attempt to protect more vulnerable species from predators. In some cases, this simply entails housing larger species with smaller species, but other times it involves specific species who have been designated by humans as “livestock guardians” such as dogs, donkeys, or llamas. Unfortunately, this practice of relying on other residents to act as deterrents or protectors is not universally reliable and, therefore, is not something we recommend. While you can certainly find folks who advocate strongly for this solution (especially individuals from the farming community), you can also find heartbreaking stories of predator attacks. In addition to the “protected” residents being harmed despite the inclusion of a “guardian” in their living space, in some cases, the “guardian” has been injured or killed by a predator because they were not properly protected either. There have also been reports of “guardian” residents going after the individuals they live with, sometimes with little to no forewarning. We believe that there is simply no substitute for proper housing and fencing when it comes to predator protection, and living arrangements should be informed by the needs of each individual resident, not the role we feel they should play.

Because they have similar (though not identical) care needs and, depending on the breeds, can be similar in size, it is not uncommon for sheep and goats to be housed together. This is an arrangement that can work depending on the individuals involved, but it should not be assumed that sheep and goats can always live safely with one another. While some sheep and goats have become the closest of friends and others have peacefully coexisted even if they didn’t become pals, some sheep and goats simply can’t live together safely. Some goats may be too rough, rambunctious, or confrontational to live with sheep and could cause serious injury to them, even inadvertently. While it is unacceptable to disbud or dehorn a goat resident unless there is a medical reason to do, it’s important to recognize that individuals with horns can injure others with their horns. There have been reports of horned goats causing deep wounds and leg injuries to sheep. Even if injury is not a concern, if your sheep residents seem stressed by living with particular goats, you’ll need to find another living arrangement that keeps everyone safe and happy. It’s also possible that a particular sheep resident may be too rough or confrontational for a particular goat. Because of the potential risks involved, we recommend sanctuaries be prepared to house sheep and goats separately rather than relying on the notion that they can always live safely together, as there is absolutely no guarantee that they can.

Consider The Individuals

In addition to understanding who goats are and what they need as a species, be sure to consider the specific individuals in your care- thinking about their unique personalities and preferences as well as their health care needs. For example, if you live in an area where barber pole worm is an issue, you may find yourself in a situation where certain goat residents harbor heavy loads of anthelmintic-resistant parasites, putting other goat residents at risk of exposure. These individuals may benefit from living with a species that does not share the same internal parasites in order to reduce the number of parasites on pastures (and therefore, reduce the number of parasites the goats are exposed to), and this setup can also help protect your other goat residents from constant exposure to large numbers of barber pole worm.

There’s a lot to consider when figuring out social groupings for sanctuary residents, and things can get even more complicated when you start thinking about how different species will do together. Be sure to consider the needs of all species and think about whether or not you can meet everyone’s needs and keep everyone safe in a mixed-species group.

What Does ‘Unacceptable’ Mean?
At The Open Sanctuary Project, unacceptable means that we cannot condone (or condone through omission) a certain practice, standard, or policy. See a more detailed explanation here.


Daily Diet, Treats, And Supplements For Goats | The Open Sanctuary Project

Goat Pastures Considerations | Goat Extension

Advanced Topics In Resident Health: Barber Pole Worm

The Importance Of Social Behaviour For Goat Welfare In Livestock Farming | Miranda-de la Lama, G.C., Mattiello, S. (Non-Compassionate Source)

Sheep And Goat Medicine, Second Edition (Non-Compassionate Source)

Food Requirements For Different Animals | Noble Research Institute (Non-Compassionate Source)

Characteristics Of Browse Plants For Goats And Sheep | ACSRPC (Non-Compassionate Source)

Grazing Preferences Of Sheep And Goats | Nebraska Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on May 8, 2022

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