Their tendency to eat almost anything they can find may have given them a bad reputation.
But goats may be smarter than we think, a new study suggests.
Researchers have discovered that domesticated animals can tell if humans are happy or sad just by listening to our tone of voice.
Scientists believe that goats have developed a sensitivity to our vocal signals throughout their long association with humans, dating back 10,000 years.
In addition to audio signals, goats understand physical gestures and can even distinguish between a smile and a frown.
Goats Can Distinguish Between a Happy-Sounding Human Voice and One That Sounds Angry, New Study Shows
“This study provides the first evidence that goats can discriminate between signals expressed in the human voice, that is, emotional valence,” said author Professor Alan McElligott of the City University of Hong Kong (CityUHK).
“These findings contribute to the limited available literature indicating that livestock, like companion animals, are sensitive to human emotional cues.”
It is already known that goats can notice emotional differences in another goat’s calls, so experts wanted to investigate whether this ability extended to human speech.
Their experiments took place at Buttercups Sanctuary For Goats, an animal rescue center in Boughton Monchelsea, Kent.
The researchers used 27 goats, both male and female, all of them accustomed to human voices and handling.
Through a speaker in their enclosure, the goats heard human voices saying the words “hey, look this way” several times, either happily or angrily.
Most importantly, the goats were allowed to get used to the sound of a happy voice for a while before the voice changed to angry, or vice versa.
Experimental setup: Through a speaker in their enclosure, the goats heard a series of human voices saying the words “hey, look this way” multiple times, either in a positive (happy) or negative (angry) manner.
Crucially, the goats were allowed to get used to the sound of a happy voice for a while (“habituation”) before the recording changed to an angry one (“dishabituation”), or vice versa.
As suspected, most of the goats (18) looked toward the speaker when the voice changed.
Additionally, most of these goats spent more time looking toward the speaker when the tone of voice suddenly changed (compared to before the voice changed).
Study author Dr Marianne Mason from the University of Roehampton told MailOnline: “Of the goats who looked, their appearance was significantly higher after the change in breeding emotion, suggesting that these goats had noticed and responded to the difference in the emotion transmitted.
This suggests that the animals were able to perceive a “change in the emotional content” of human voices, the experts say in their article, published in the journal Animal behavior.
The team admits that not all goats responded to the change in emotion, which may be due to individual variations in their cognitive abilities.
Additionally, the researchers did not notice any significant physiological changes among the goats, such as an increase in heart rate, after the voice changes.
Despite this, researchers believe that goats know what the two types of voices really mean, not just that one is different from the other.
Like dogs and cats, negative voices, such as angry ones, can cause fear in goats, researchers believe.
On the contrary, positive voices can be perceived as calming and may even encourage animals to come closer and help with human-animal bonding.
This could be because goats have a long history of domestication by humans.
The experiments were carried out at Buttercups Sanctuary For Goats, an animal rescue center in Boughton Monchelsea, Kent.
According to Professor McElligott, goats were the first domesticated livestock species about 10,000 years ago.
Therefore, it is likely that they have evolved to develop “a sensitivity to our signals during their long association with us.”
“More research is needed to understand the importance of the human voice in the emotional life and well-being of goats and other domesticated species,” he said.
Professor McElligott and his colleagues have already shown that goats can read human emotional expressions by differentiating between a positive and negative face.
In the 2018 study, goats overall spent more time with photos of smiling people than with photos of frowning people.
Another study led by Professor McElligott found that goats can understand gestures such as pointing, as can dogs, cats and horses.
This study had implications for how people interact with farm animals, because the animals’ ability to perceive human signals may be more widespread than originally thought, the authors said at the time.