Goats might not seem like the most cuddly animals, but researchers have found evidence that goats are as clever as dogs, and just as capable of building emotional relationships with humans as all the other domesticated animals we’ve let into our hearts and homes.
The 2016 study showed that goats stare intensely at their owner when they’re struggling to complete a task – a trait that’s also observed in domesticated dogs, but not wolves.
“Goats gaze at humans in the same way as dogs do when asking for a treat that is out of reach,” said one of the researchers, Christian Nawroth from the Queen Mary University of London.
“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,” he added.
While they’re not unheard of as pets, throughout the 10,000 years we’ve been raising goats, humans have used them mainly for agriculture.
And up until recently, scientists thought that only animals that had been bred as companions or pets – such as dogs, cats, and horses – were able to form bonds with humans.
But there have been signs that goats have similar abilities. For one thing, they’re comfortable living outside of a flock, something that sheep – which were domesticated more recently - aren’t okay with.
Previous research by Nawroth and his team has also shown that their intelligence rivals that of dogs, with goats able to see if there was a treat in one cup or not, and discern from that information whether there was a treat in another cup.
To better understand how well goats could relate to humans, in the 2016 study, the team trained 34 goats from the Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent to remove a lid from a box to receive a reward. They ran the goats through this test numerous times, but on the last time, they made the box impossible to get into, and recorded how the goat reacted.
They found that the goats turned their heads towards the person conducting the experiment once they realised they were stuck, and they gazed longer when the person was facing them, as opposed to when they had their back turned, which suggests that the goats were aware of where the human was looking.
In other words, the goats were modifying their behaviour based on their human audience, something it was previously thought that only dogs, cats, and horses were capable of.
“From our earlier research, we already know that goats are smarter than their reputation suggests,” said one of the researchers Alan McElligott.
“But these results show how they can communicate and interact with their human handlers even though they were not domesticated as pets or working animals.”
Not only does that suggest goats have the potential to be awesome and loving sidekicks, just like dogs, it also indicates that living alongside humans for tens of thousands of years – regardless of whether they’re companion animals or not – might have a bigger impact on species than we expected.
The research was published in Biology Letters, and despite the positive results, this is just one study, so we need more confirmation before we can say for sure that goats are able to bond and communicate with humans.
The researchers will now continue investigating the behaviour of goats, in the hopes that they’ll be better able to understand how humans have influenced the evolution of domesticated animals – as well as help us to treat goats better in future.
“If we can show that they are more intelligent, then hopefully we can bring in better guidelines for their care,” said McElligott.
The research was published in Biology Letters.
A version of this article was first published in July 2016.