Goats have a reputation for eating all kinds of things. But, when they eat dirt, many goat owners wonder why. Known as pica, eating dirt, rocks, or other inedible items is an unusual behavior seen in various animals.
It can affect goats of all ages and breeds and can happen in all parts of the world. While the act of pica itself is generally harmless, this behavior is unsightly and could be caused by underlying health issues.
Why is my goat eating dirt? Goats eat dirt as an instinct to solve health issues. The most common reason is to make up for a mineral deficiency in their diet. Most often, the goat is attempting to balance their sodium, copper, or selenium intake. These three minerals occur naturally worldwide in different concentrations within the soil and plants that grow there.
Some regions contain an abundance of one or more of these minerals, while other areas are severely lacking. In rarer cases, parasites, habits, or illnesses can induce a goat to eat dirt.
Let’s dive in so you can figure out what’s causing your goat to eat dirt.
Reasons Goats Eat Dirt
Goats eat dirt because a natural instinct is driving them to seek a solution. Healthy goats will not eat dirt. If your goat eats dirt, it is probably low on a critical nutrient or facing another health crisis.
1. A Mineral Deficiency Causes Goat Pica (Dirt eating)
Most of the United States has a selenium deficiency in the soil. This has not caused health issues for wild goats or sheep because they can cover huge distances to find the minerals they need.
However, since domestic goats are confined to much smaller areas than their wild relatives, they cannot naturally browse on enough bushes and shrubs to fill their need for these minerals.
If all minerals and vitamins are provided, and your goats have had plenty of time for their bodies to reflect the nutritional changes, the act of eating dirt should stop. If not, it could be related to other issues in your herd, including internal parasites and learned behaviors.
2. Internal Parasites Cause Mineral Deficiencies
Internal parasites can also be a concern for goats that have been eating dirt. Worms in a goat’s intestines may cause them to eat dirt or rocks in an attempt to rid themselves of the parasites.
Additionally, goats that do eat dirt may also ingest their droppings or droppings from another goat adding to the internal parasites. If you notice your goat eating dirt or rocks, always be sure to check for any signs of internal parasites and treat that as necessary.
Check out this article to find out more about goat vaccinations and dewormers.
3. Your Goats are Bored
Goats may sometimes develop bad habits out of boredom or stress. This has been known to include pacing, repeatedly butting the wall with their head, and eating dirt or rocks. A change of scenery, such as moving them to a new pasture or giving the goat something to play with, such as a ball or climbing toy, may help improve their mental state and stop eating dirt or rocks entirely.
4. Shedding a Winter Coat
You may notice some of your goats start eating dirt or rocks around when they are shedding their winter coats. If this is a new and only occasional behavior, they may need a boost in copper.
This mineral is directly related to coat health and hair growth, so if you only ever notice this behavior during the shedding months, a boost of copper may be necessary.
5. Compromised Health Status
Goats that have been sick and are now recovering, as well as young kids still nursing or being bottle fed, may also turn to eat dirt in an attempt to restart their gut flora and beneficial bacteria. This may carry more risks for the goat as internal parasites, botulism, and other bacterial issues may arise.
If your goat has been off feed or is just starting to develop its intestinal flora, contact your veterinarian or local farm store to ask about probiotics for your goats. Providing your goat with the right boost of healthy bacteria can quickly put a stop to pica in this case.
6. Well Water Can Contribute to Deficiencies
Most rural areas that have goats also obtain their water from a well. The water pumped by a well often contains different concentrations of iron, calcium, or sulfur. These minerals are sometimes in such high concentrations that it can prevent your goats from absorbing the micronutrients they do need, leading them to be continuously deficient even if the proper balance of minerals is provided at all times.
High calcium levels in water sources can bind to selenium in the goats’ system, preventing it from being absorbed by the goat properly. This leads to selenium deficiency which also leads to infertility and general health issues in your herd.
Contacting your local Health Agency or University to have your well water tested is a highly reliable and straightforward way to know exactly what minerals your water may contain. Once you know this, you can adjust the nutrients in your loose minerals and provide additional supplementation to your herd as needed.
Minerals Goats Need
Regardless of their breed or intended uses, there is a wide range of macro and micronutrients that are vital for domestic goats to have in their diet. Ensuring your goats are getting the proper amount of these minerals is equally as important as them having access to the minerals in the first place.
Most nutrients are given to goats in loose grit form rather than as a mineral block. This allows the goat to easily self-regulate their intake daily. The three most important minerals for domestic goats are:
This mineral is essential for the reproductive health of your herd. Deficiencies in selenium can cause weak libido and infertility in bucks, miscarriages and spontaneous abortions in does, and weak joints in both adults and kids. Additionally, white muscle disease has directly been related to selenium deficiency and has become a severe issue in some parts of the United States.
Ensuring your goat mineral mix has up to 80 ppm of selenium is extremely important. It is recommended to never go below 20 ppm, especially in herds used for breeding purposes. You can give goats with severe selenium deficiencies oral supplements to boost their selenium intake quickly.
The deficiency of this mineral is responsible for a wide range of issues in goats. Some of the minor signs of copper deficiency can include dull coat, wiry coat, discolored coat, increased susceptibility to both internal and external parasites, and anemia, which may cause death if not treated.
You should always try to find a mineral mixture that has 1500-2000 ppm of copper included. If you cannot find this amount, additional copper supplementation may be required with injections or oral pastes.
Like copper, zinc deficiencies can be linked to a wide range of issues in your herd. Some of the most apparent signs of a zinc deficiency include poor skin condition, poor hoof health, infertility in both bucks and does, increased susceptibility to external parasites, and joint issues in goats of all ages.
Your mineral mix needs to include zinc at a rate 3 or 4 times higher than the copper content. For example, compounds with 2000 ppm of copper would need to contain 6000-8000 ppm of zinc. This balance helps ensure proper nutrient absorption by the goats.
Additional minerals for proper goat health may include:
Iron usually is not a problem in goats that have access to pasture and diverse roughage. However, if you raise market goats in confinement, iron deficiency may become an issue. Some signs of iron deficiency include poor respiration rates, poor heart rate, weakness after physical exertion, and severe anemia that may be fatal if not treated.
Iron in most loose mineral mixes can range anywhere from 50 to 1000 ppm. The amount you get will depend on whether you want to prevent an iron deficiency or are treating one. Additionally, iron injections and oral supplementation can be provided in a goat mineral mix containing this nutrient.
In addition to helping goats build strong bones and promote nerve health, calcium is also essential for lactating females. Deficiencies in calcium can lower milk production, increase the risk of milk fever, and cause weak uterine contractions in breeding females. Additionally, kids born from calcium deficient females may have bone weakness and be unable to stand and nurse properly.
Depending on the brand of goat minerals you purchase, the calcium percentage should range from 14% to 18%. Calcium percentages on the lower end are highly recommended for bucks and wethers due to the potential risk of urinary calculi.
Phosphorus is essential to have in your mineral mix as it helps the goat properly absorb calcium. Typically phosphorus should be included at twice the amount of calcium. For example, if your goat mineral mixture has 15% calcium, you should ensure that your phosphorus amount is around 30%.
This mineral is crucial for calcium absorption, but a phosphorus deficiency can directly relate to pica in your herd. Goats may attempt to eat wood, stones, clay, and dirt to make up for this deprivation in their diet if not provided with the proper mineral access. Additionally, symptoms of phosphorus deficiency include poor coat condition, poor fertility, and physical weakness.
Generally provided as a way to make minerals more palatable for goats, your loose mineral salt content needs to be less than 20%. If the mixture contains too little salt, the goats may keep eating to the point they get a mineral overdose. If the salt content is too much, they may stop eating before getting the right balance of minerals.
Salt consists of both sodium and chloride, which act as electrolytes in your goat’s body. Proper electrolyte balance improves water movement throughout the body, pH balance within the body, and nerve health. Deficiencies in sodium and chloride may include nerve damage, muscle weakness or stiffness, poor appetite, urinary calculi, or pica.
Is a Loose Minerals or a Mineral Block Better?
There are two ways you can offer goat minerals. Some minerals come in block or brick form, and others come in loose mineral or grit form. Both options can contain the same amount of nutrients to keep your goats healthy, but most goat owners choose one over the other.
Mineral blocks are a tightly compacted and tough item you place in your goat barn or pasture. This allows them to lick and chew on the minerals when they want. However, most goat owners stay away from the mineral blocks as it is too tricky for goats to get the right amount of nutrients from licking alone.
Goats have very soft tongues and are generally unable to lick enough from the blocks to meet their daily requirements. Additionally, as they only have bottom teeth in the front of their jaws, it makes it very hard for them to chew on the rock-hard blocks adequately.
Most goat owners recommend loose minerals. Goats are excellent at self-regulating their daily intake of nutrients. Having the loose minerals available in a separate feeding container around the clock is the best way to ensure your goats meet their nutritional needs.
Additionally, you may choose to top-dress grain or other food items. Unfortunately, much of the nutritional balance is lost as the goats will sometimes not eat enough of the minerals they need for the day when their feed is top-dressed. Overall, most goat owners maintain the best method is to place loose minerals in a separate feeding bowl and ensure it is offered free choice to your goats around the clock.
Regardless of which method you choose to go with, always ensure your minerals are specifically formulated for goats. Sheep formulas or sheep & goat mixtures will not contain enough copper to keep your goats healthy. Also, be sure to take note of the salt or sodium content in a loose mineral. Anything more than 20% is too much, and your goats may stop eating the minerals before meeting their daily mineral needs.
Tooth Damage in Goats That Eat Dirt
Once changes are made to your goat’s diet, it may take some time for them to stop eating dirt, rocks, or other non-food items. You might worry about their dental health since eating rocks can’t possibly be healthy for their teeth. This is a valid concern since, as ruminants, goats will process their food multiple times by regurgitating coarse food and chewing on it numerous times throughout the day to break it down even further.
Luckily for your goat’s teeth, the lower chamber of the stomach is where the stones and clumps of dirt will end up. This is also where the most processed food goes. This means they will not be regurgitating food from this stomach chamber, so there is little to no risk of chewing their cud and damaging a tooth on a stone.
Additionally, once the food is in this final stomach chamber, it is ready for processing by the body. Nutrients are sent where they need to go, and the rest is passed as droppings. You may notice small pebbles and other inedible items in dirt-eating goats’ feces.
Goats may eat dirt or rocks for several reasons, but the most common is nutrient deficiencies. Continually evaluate your mineral provisions before moving into other possible causes. The proper minerals for your goat herd can not only put a stop to pica but can also improve a wide range of other health issues you may have noticed.