Goats Know When You're Happy and Like You Better for It

Dogs are a man's best friend, or so the saying goes. Our furry, four-legged pets are renowned for their ability to recognize human emotions and even respond to our facial expressions.

But what about other animals? Is human-animal emotional communication reserved for pets and working creatures like dogs and horses, or can farm animals like goats understand our facial expressions too?

Alan McElligott and colleagues performed a simple experiment on the residents of Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, U.K., to find out. The team placed two photographs of the same human face on a wall in front of each animal. One picture showed a happy face, the other an angry one, and the photos were changed so each goat saw a range of different faces. The team recorded the animal's responses and published their findings in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

The goats, McElligott told Newsweek, tended to avoid angry human faces and approach happy ones. Once there, they "really seemed to stop and take time to investigate," he said. This was especially true when happy faces were displayed on the right-hand side of the wall. Researchers think this might indicate that positive emotions are processed on the left-hand side of the animal's brains.

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Goats frolic at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, U.K. Christian Nawroth

"We already knew that goats are very attuned to human body language, but we did not know how they react to different human emotional expressions, such as anger and happiness," said Christian Nawroth, who worked on the study at Queen Mary University of London, but is now based at Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology, in a statement. "Here, we show for the first time that goats do not only distinguish between these expressions, but they also prefer to interact with happy ones."

McElligott admits he was surprised by the goat's responses. "I thought the goats might either ignore the images, or maybe even try to chew on them," he said. Although currently at the University of Roehampton, McElligott led the study at Queen Mary University of London.

He suspects the goats were more interested in the smiling faces because they've learned they're more likely to enjoy a positive social interaction with a happy-looking person. "Goats that are used to being around people are, in general, socially interactive and enjoy being stroked et cetera," he said.

A goat sticks its tongue out. Getty Images

Beyond the study's cuteness, understanding the cognitive abilities of goats is vital to improving their welfare, McElligott said. Goats, he added, can help scientists understand other livestock animals like cattle, sheep and pigs.

He hopes—funding permitting—that researchers will be able to carry on investigating goat-human communication. "There are approximately one billion goats on the planet and it is important to raise awareness of their welfare needs," he said.