The Difference Between Sheep and Goats

goats and sheep stare at camera

Treehugger / Allison McAdams

In the Chinese lunar calendar, each new year is dedicated to one of 12 animal signs. 2015 was the year of the goat ... or, wait, was it the year of the sheep? We westerners were mighty confused; “Year of the Sheep!” swore the sheep stalwarts; “Year of the Goat!” goaded the goat devoted. And this is a dilemma we can likely expect every 12 years.

goats and sheep in grassy field
Treehugger / Allison McAdams

The problem is—and note, this isn’t a problem in China—that the word for the eighth animal in the 12-year parade of critters is “yang,” which in Mandarin doesn’t specify between members of the Caprinae subfamily, like “goat” and “sheep” do in English. Some people even throw rams into the mix. As The New York Times points out, “Without further qualifiers, yang might mean any such hoofed animal that eats grass and bleats.” Pray-tell, its uncertainty is enough to drive the specificity seekers among us bananas.

But rest assured.

“Few ordinary Chinese are troubled by the sheep-goat distinction,” Xinhua, China’s main state-run news agency, said in its report on the debate. “However, the ambiguity has whipped up discussion in the West.”

sheep face in profile
Treehugger / Allison McAdams

In the end, we are left to take our pick ... and in the name of elucidation, we thought we would outline the differences between the two. Come 2027, will you choose Team Goat or Team Sheep?

The Genes

chocolate brown shaggy lamb
Treehugger / Allison McAdams 

While both hail from the subfamily Caprinae, sheep and goats diverge at the genus level and arrive as distinct species. Sheep (Ovis aries) have 54 chromosomes; goats (Capra aegagrus hircus) have 60. Sheep–goat hybrids (yes, a geep or shoat) do exist, but they are rare.

Grazers Versus Browsers

goat munches on grass on hill
Treehugger / Allison McAdams

A main difference between the two is how they forage. Sheep are grazers; they ramble slowly eating short plants close to the ground. Goats are browsers; they look for leaves, twigs, vines, and shrubs. And their agility and climbing ability allows them to attain charming positions in pursuit of their forage.

“Because they browse, goats spend a lot of time investigating things. They are forever nibbling on and eating things,” Cathy Dwyer, a professor at Scotland's Rural College, tells NPR. “So they have more exploratory, investigate behavior because of their feeding style. They appear to be more interactive with the environment, and they are very engaging animals.”


white sheep stares into camera
Treehugger / Allison McAdams

Because of a goat’s natural curiosity and independence, they can tend to get into more trouble than sheep. Sheep are, yes, sheepish. They have a very strong flocking instinct and become agitated when separated from their posse.

A Tale of the Tails

sheep tail hangs down blonde coat
Treehugger / Allison McAdams

Generally, the quickest way to distinguish between the two is to take a gander at their tails. A goat’s tail usually points up; a sheep’s tail hangs down.

light brown goat tail points up
Treehugger / Allison McAdams 

What They Wear

Sheep are known for their woolly coats, which require annual shearing. Goats are generally hairy and don’t require haircuts.

Beards and Lips

Some goats have beards, sheep don’t. But some sheep have manes. Sheep have an upper lip that is divided by a distinct philtrum, goats don’t.


blonde goat with horns
Treehugger / Allison McAdams

Most goats have horns; many sheep, but not all, are naturally without horns. Goat horns are narrower and usually straighter; sheep horns tend to be thicker and curved, tending to loop around on the sides of their heads, like a ruminant tribute to Princess Leia