Goats Prefer Happy Human Faces

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet goat

Story at-a-glance -

  • Research suggests goats may be able to read human moods, much like dogs and horses
  • Goats were shown two images of a human face, one showing a positive/happy emotion and the other a negative/angry one
  • Overall, the goats preferred to interact with the happy face first, suggesting they are sensitive to human facial emotional cues; they also spent longer interacting with the happy face
  • The study raises more important questions about environmental enrichment for livestock

It’s long been known that companion animals like dogs are highly in tune with human emotions — likely the result of living alongside of us for tens of thousands of years. But what about animals viewed more as a food source than a pet — like goats?

Dogs, being domesticated as companion animals, are experts at reading and deciphering human communication cues. They can read human facial expressions and discriminate between different emotions. Horses also respond to different emotional cues off by human faces and are capable of remembering emotional facial expressions of individual humans.

Both dogs and horses, researchers point out in the journal Royal Society Open Science, were domesticated in order to cooperate with humans, whether that be hunting, guarding or riding. “In these cooperative contexts, the perception of human emotional facial expressions is likely to have been adaptive for both species,” the researchers said.1

“Unlike dogs and horses, goats have been exclusively domesticated for production of materials used by humans.” In short, goats are domesticated too, but for food production instead of companionship. Yet, research now suggests they may also be able to read human moods, much like dogs and horses.

Goats Can Read Human Facial Expressions

The study involved a group of goats living at the Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, U.K. Each goat was shown two images of a human face, one showing a positive/happy emotion and the other a negative/angry one.

The images were attached to a wall in the testing arena, and the goats were free to explore the photos as they wished during four test trials lasting 30 seconds each. Overall, the goats preferred to interact with the happy face first, “meaning that they are sensitive to human facial emotional cues.” According to the study:2

“Goats interacted first, more often and for longer duration with positive faces when they were positioned on the right side. However, no preference was found when the positive faces were placed on the left side.

We show that animals domesticated for production can discriminate human facial expressions with different emotional valences and prefer to interact with positive ones. Therefore, the impact of domestication on animal cognitive abilities may be more far-reaching than previously assumed.”

As for why the goats only preferred happy photos placed on the right, it’s likely because they use one side of their brain for processing the information. The study raises important questions about the treatment of livestock, considering they’re showing more complex emotional perception than was previously realized.

Even though humans likely selected goats based on their milking, response to dietary change, pigmentation and other factors not related to how attuned they were to humans’ communicative cues, they seemed to develop a knack for it nonetheless. Study co-author Alan McElligott, Ph.D. told BBC News, "The study has important implications for how we interact with livestock and other species, because the abilities of animals to perceive human emotions might be widespread and not just limited to pets."3

Goats, Like Dogs, Look to Humans for Help

Goats are more like dogs than many people realize, including in the way they interact with their owners. Dogs will look to their owners for help when they need help solving a problem — and goats will too. One study involved 34 goats who were trained to remove a lid from a box to obtain a reward. On the final test, the researchers made the lid impossible for the goats to remove and stationed a person nearby, either facing the goats or turned away.4

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.” Goats are also good learners and are capable of solving a puzzle to earn a food reward. They can even remember how to solve it 10 months later, which suggests they have excellent long-term memory.5

It’s also believed that goats may have higher-order cognitive abilities, based on their complex social groups in the wild and ability to learn socially from humans (something dogs can also do). When faced with a challenge of finding food placed behind different hurdles, goats solved the challenge faster after seeing a human solve it one time.6 The goats also tended to use the same route that the human did in order to find the food.

Do Goats Make Good Pets?

Considering that goats are likely much more perceptive of human emotions than we give them credit for, goats can absolutely make great pets. They may not play fetch like your dog will, but they’re full of quirky personality and enjoy interacting with their owners, including being brushed and petted.

As social animals, goats do best when kept with other goats, and they’re outdoor pets who will need a sturdy enclosure to keep them safe, along with a shelter to keep them out of the weather. Goats love to climb, so a vertical structure to explore will be much appreciated, and they’ll also need a special diet that’s supplemented with hay, grains and greens.

They can also browse for foliage, but keep in mind they’ll eat most any plant life in your backyard if given the opportunity. It’s encouraging that science is beginning to recognize that animals of all shapes and sizes have unique qualities and capabilities — even those we regard as livestock — and deserve attention to not only their physical needs but also their emotional ones.

If you’d like to share your life with a goat or three, there are many looking for homes. Contact a rescue organization near you to find a goat friend in need.