Dogs and horses may be much better known for their ability to bond closely with humans but new research suggests goats are every bit as in tune with their owners.
Pets and working animals, such as dogs and horses, have evolved over thousands of years to communicate with humans in a referential and intentional way – in contrast to the wolves they descended from.
But, until now, it had been assumed that animals that had been domesticated for production, rather than as a companion, would not have evolved into such adept communicators with humans.
“Goats gaze at humans in the same way as dogs do when asking for a treat that is out of reach, for example,” said Dr Christian Nawroth, lead author of the study by Queen Mary University of London.
Co-author Dr Alan McElligott added: “We already know that goats are smarter than their reputation suggests but these results show they can communicate and interact with their human handlers even though they were not domesticated as pets or working animals.”
To investigate, the team trained goats from the Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent to remove the lid from a box to receive a reward. In the final test, they made the reward inaccessible and recorded their reaction towards the experimenters, who were either facing the goats or had their backs to them. Goats redirected their gaze frequently between the inaccessible reward and human experimenters. They also gazed towards a forward-facing person earlier, more often and for longer, compared to when the person was facing away.
“Horses were ridden and pulled and ploughs and dogs were used for hunting. Meanwhile, goats were used for their meat, hair and milk, so you wouldn’t expect them to be as good at reading cues from humans – but they are,” Dr McElligott said.
He notes that the public has increasingly recognised the attraction of goats as pets in recent years and expects the trend to continue.
However, while goats can be incredibly affectionate and rewarding pets, the RSPCA cautions that you should think carefully before getting one.
“Goats are lovely animals but the RSPCA strongly advises people to very carefully consider the unique needs of these animals. Owning a goat is a big commitment and can be very time-consuming and expensive,” a spokesman said.