How animals perceive the world around them is still a mystery to us in so many ways.
That’s true even for smart, social animals like goats, whose charisma has inspired a whole YouTube sub-genre: dozens of videos that highlight funny and cute goat moments and have racked up millions of views. Sanctuaries like Goats of Anarchy that care for neglected goats have hundreds of thousands of highly engaged followers on Instagram.
It can be tempting to anthropomorphize these expressive and gregarious animals. But in truth, we still know very little about what—and how—non-human animals think and feel. Little by little, however, our window into animal cognition may be opening.
A new study published in Frontiers in Zoology on July 10, 2019 has confirmed that goats can differentiate between other goats’ happiness or displeasure by listening to their voices. In other words, they can tell how one another is feeling. This finding carries potential implications for how goats in captivity—whether they’re kept for meat, milk, wool, or companionship—are treated.
At the most basic level, says Luigi Baciadonna, the study’s lead author, it shows that “they’re aware of the environment they’re living in.” They join the ranks of horses, primates, sheep, and others as non-human animals capable of perceiving emotion in their kin.
Researchers involved in the study had previously concluded that goats can express emotion through their voices. Next, a larger team decided to explore whether goats can detect it in others. “If you’re not actually studying the effect of emotions on others, we’re missing an important social aspect,” says Luigi Baciadonna, postdoctoral research assistant at the Queen Mary University of London and lead author of the study.
The group worked with 24 goats at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, England, which rescues abandoned and abused goats in and around the southeast part of the country.
A listening test
Researchers recorded calls that individual goats made when expressing happiness—upon being approached with food—and when expressing mild frustration—with being isolated from the herd for five minutes, or with watching other goats eating without being able to reach the food.
Then they played back the vocalizations to different goats outfitted with heart monitors. They found that the goats became more attentive when the emotions in the vocalizations changed, indicating they can detect a difference. And listening to happy vocalizations correlated to a greater variation in the length of time between heartbeats—a sign of positive wellbeing in mammals.
The researchers didn’t put the “frustrated” goats through particularly distressing scenarios, and so the sounds they made were far from anguished cries, says Baciadonna. To the human ear, they sound almost identical to the happy sounds. Yet goats were more attentive to the negative sounds than the positive sounds.
It’s logical, says Baciadonna. “You should be more vigilant with [potential] danger than if you’re at a party eating with friends.”
Kristina Horback, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science at the University of California, Davis, isn’t surprised at all by the findings. “This just makes evolutionary sense,” she says via email. She points out that it’s beneficial for all animals, including humans, to be able to rely on cues from others “that communicate something is in the environment”—whether good or bad—“that can impact their survival.”
What this means for goats
The key, Baciadonna says, is to next try to determine if emotions are contagious in any way. For instance, when a goat recognizes that another goat is in distress, would the first goat start to feel stress as well?
If the answer is yes, he wonders what people who care for and raise goats might do with that information. “If we treat an animal in bad conditions,” he says, triggering a call of distress, “there could be consequences…that could [potentially] spread in a group of animals. It’s up to us if we want to use that in a positive or negative way.”
Baciadonna hopes the study helps further highlight the complexity of goats and can be a building block for further research into how they communicate and the relationships they have with each other. “It’s not unusual that we see the same goats hanging out together for the rest of their lives,” he says.
Empathy and animals
There’s also a question of empathy—the ability to not just sense but vicariously understand another’s emotions. Entire studies have been done on just how difficult it is to evaluate empathy in non-human animals. Some studies have shown that many animals, including rats, chickens, and dogs, at least appear to exhibit signs of empathy. But other studies question whether these animals experience empathy as we do.
Leanne Lauricella, founder of Goats of Anarchy, a sanctuary for special-needs goats in New Jersey, would not be surprised in the least if further studies prove that goats can feel each others’ emotions. She has countless stories about the complex relationships her rescued goats have formed with each other.
“They feed off each other. The bonded pairs or groups eat together, play together, and lay in the sun together,” she says. “When one of our baby twins lost her twin sister, another one of our goats laid next to her and snuggled and comforted her.”
“The abilities of goats are sometimes underestimated,” Baciadonna says.