While sheep and goats have many similarities, their taxonomy (scientific clasification) eventually diverges. Each is a distinct species and genus. Sheep (Ovis
aries) have 54 chromosomes, while goats (Capra aegagrus hircus)
have 60. While sheep and goats will occasionally mate, fertile sheep-goat hybrids are rare. Hybrids made in
the laboratory are called chimeras.
Look at their tails The easist way to tell the difference between a sheep and
goat is to look at their tails. A goat's tail goes up (unless
it is sick, frightened, or in distress). Sheep tails hang down
and are often docked (shortened) for health and sanitary reasons.
Foraging behavior A big difference between sheep and goats is their foraging
behavior and diet selection. Goats are natural browsers, preferring
to eat leaves, twigs, vines, and shrubs. They are very agile and
will stand on their hind legs to reach vegetation. Goats like to eat the tops of plants. Sheep are grazers,
preferring to eat short, tender grasses and clover. Their dietary
preference is forbs (broadleaf weeds) and they like to graze close to the soil surface. Goats require and select a more nutritious diet.
Behavior Sheep and goats usually exhibit different behavior. Goats are naturally curious and independent, while sheep tend to
be more distant and aloof. Sheep have a stronger flocking instinct
and become very agitated if they are separated from the rest of
the flock. It is easier to keep sheep inside a fence than goats.
Goats will seek shelter more readily than sheep. Neither species likes
to get its feet wet and both prefer upland grazing to lowland.
In a fight, a ram will back up and charge to butt heads. A goat
will rear up on his hind legs and come down forceably to butt
heads. During controntation, such fighting behavior favors the ram.
Sheep and goats have numerous physical differences. Most goats
have hair coats that do not require shearing or combing. Most
sheep grow woolly coats that need to be sheared at least annually. Lamb tails are
usually docked (shortened) whereas goat tails are not.
Sheep have an upper lip that is divided by a distinct philtrum
(groove). The goat does not.
Male goats have glands beneath their tail. Sheep have face or
tear glands beneath their eyes and foot or scent glands between
the toes. Male goats develop a distinct odor as they grow in sexual maturity. The odor is very strong during the rut (mating season). Sexually mature rams have much less of an odor, if they have an odor at all.
Horns Most goats are naturally horned. Some goats have beards. Many
breeds of sheep are naturally hornless (polled). Some sheep have
manes. Goat horns are more narrow, upright, and less curved than
sheep horns. Sheep tend to curl their horns in loops on the sides
of their heads.