By Dr. Becker
Despite being one of the oldest domesticated species (dogs were the first), goats are still viewed primarily as farm animals, not pets.
While dogs have adapted to housebreaking and living indoors, goats still need a large outdoor space to thrive — and they enjoy living amongst other goat companions (whereas dogs will happily live among humans).
Yet, to know a goat is to love one, because these quirky, personality-packed animals are incredibly endearing. They're also surprisingly smart — at least as intelligent as dogs — and have the ability to form similar relationships with humans as our canine companions. Could goats become humans' new best friend?
Goats Share Many of the Traits We've Come to Love in Dogs
Dogs have adapted to living closely with humans for more than 10,000 years. Domestication shaped dogs' brains to the extent that they're now able to differentiate between different emotions displayed on human faces as well as make social and emotional evaluations of people and decisions based on those evaluations, such as refusing food from someone who was mean to their owner.
One of the factors that sets dogs apart from other canines, like wolves, is their tendency to make direct eye contact with humans. Dogs gaze at their owners for a variety of reasons, including when they need help to solve a difficult problem, such as how to get a treat out of an enclosed container.
Researchers from the Queen Mary University of London wondered if other domesticated animals, namely goats, might also share this ability, and it turns out their suspicions were correct. Goats, like dogs, stare intently at their owners when they need help completing a task.
The study, published in Biology Letters, involved 34 goats who were trained to remove a lid from a box to obtain a reward. On the final test, they made the lid impossible to remove and stationed a person nearby, either facing the goats or turned away.1
When faced with the problematic box, the goats turned their heads toward the researcher and gazed intensely. They gazed for a longer period when the person was facing them then when their back was turned to them, which suggests they were in tune with their audience.
This provided evidence for what the researchers called "audience-dependent human-directed visual orienting behavior." You can see it for yourself in the video above. Researcher Christian Nawroth explained:2
"Goats gaze at humans in the same way as dogs do when asking for a treat that is out of reach …
Our results provide strong evidence for complex communication directed at humans in a species that was domesticated primarily for agricultural production, and show similarities with animals bred to become pets or working animals, such as dogs and horses."
More Evidence of Goat Intelligence
Goats live in complex social structures ad are known to figure out ways to access difficult-to-reach food sources (such as climbing a tree). In a study of domesticated goats, the animals "excelled at learning" and nine of the 12 participants learned how to solve a puzzle in order to earn a food reward.3
Even more remarkable, the successful goats remembered how to correctly solve the puzzle 10 months later, which indicates they have excellent long-term memory. The researchers further noted:4
"Goats possess several features commonly associated with advanced cognition, such as successful colonization of new environments and complex fission-fusion societies [in which the group's size and composition changes depending on activity and environment, as is seen among chimpanzees]."
Also revealing, research published in the journal Behavioral Processes found that goats' personality traits, such as being exploratory or social (or less so), predicted the outcome of various cognitive tasks.
In cases where a goat appears unable to complete a task may therefore not be an indicator of her capacity to learn but could be explained by her personality.5
In another study, when goats were gently groomed by brushing their heads and backs, their heart rate increased and the goats did not move away from the experimenter, which suggests the goats may have enjoyed the positive human interaction.
"The assumption that animals are sentient and therefore able to experience emotions creates the new challenge of assessing their emotions and, when possible, to identify strategies to promote positive emotional experiences," the researchers explained,6 which should open conversations about how to best care for and raise farm animals like goats.
Do Goats Make Good Pets?
It's unlikely that goats will outcompete dogs to take the place of man's best friend, in large part because they need to live outdoors and do not make good indoor pets. This isn't to say that they're not good companion animals, however; they are.
If you have the space and proper accommodations for goats, and you live in an area that allows goats (not every city does), goats can be excellent outdoor "pets." You will need to provide your goats plenty of room to roam, an area to climb and a shelter to keep them safely out of the elements.
Sturdy fencing is a must, as goats are clever and make great escape artists. They also have a tendency to stick their heads through small holes, chew wood and rub their bodies on fences, which is why you'll need a reinforced fence with slates close enough together to prevent your goats' heads from getting stuck.7
Like dogs, goats also need regular veterinary care and to have their hooves trimmed regularly. Further, while it's often said that goats will eat anything, they can actually be quite picky. According to VetStreet:8
"They don't like to eat food if it has fallen on the floor or been soiled so all food must be fed off the ground in a manger. Goats are mostly browsers, but most people don't have enough foliage in their backyards to feed a goat its entire diet and must supplement with hay, grains [and] greens — and plenty of fresh water.
Goats will eat most plants in your yard — grass, weeds, shrubs, trees [or] flowers — but they eat in patches, so they won't keep your grass neatly mowed or your hedges cleanly manicured if that's what you're hoping."
In short, goats are social and affectionate animals capable of bonding with their owners. They're quirky, silly and amusing to spend time with, and many people also enjoy their milk. However, goats require a lot of care to keep, like physically hauling bales of hay and scooping manure. They also have emotional needs — they like to play and do best living with other goats.
Many also enjoy being petted and spending time with their owners. If you live in a rural area and are looking for a unique and rewarding pet, and are committed to the work involved, a few goats may be just the right pet for you. Keep in mind that, like dogs, goats are also available from rescue organizations. If you're thinking of adding goats to your life, consider adoption first.