Goats Form Intense Connections with Humans, Too

It's the first time a creature raised for food has evolved intense, meaningful connections with people.

Photo: A goat relaxes at the Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats, United Kingdom. Credit: Christian Nawroth Goats have surprisingly just been added to the very short list of animals that are known to communicate in very direct and complex ways with humans.

The other two animals, dogs and horses, are often raised as companions to humans, so the goat findings -- reported in the journal Royal Society Biology Letters -- mark the first time that an animal raised primarily for food has evolved such an intense and meaningful connection with our species.

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"Goats are very social animals," the lead author of the study, Christian Nawroth, told Discovery News. "Being social definitely seems to be a prerequisite to interacting with other species."

That factor alone could help explain why cats tend to fail the basic test that dogs, horses and goats passed with ease. By necessity, wild cats evolved a more solitary lifestyle. While some individual cats do seem to connect well with their owners, the ability is not as widespread.

Nawroth and colleagues Jemma Brett and Alan McElligott, from Queen Mary University of London's School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, conducted their research at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in the U.K., with funding provided by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and Farm Sanctuary's "The Someone Project."

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The researchers created an "unsolvable problem" task by placing a tasty treat under a plastic box with the lid sealed shut. The goats could therefore see the food, but could never get at it.

As the 34 goats, a mix of male and female, individually approached the box, most looked right into the eyes of a nearby human, as if hoping to obtain some guidance. They also adjusted their behavior to match the gaze and position of the human. From a scientific standpoint, this meant the goats were exhibiting referential and intentional communication with the humans.

Goats can be challenging to keep as pets. They are loud herd animals with voracious appetites and they require a lot of space. But, owners who consider their goats to be pets anecdotally report that the animals are extremely affectionate and personable, in ways comparable to dogs and horses.

Dog studies may help pinpoint some of the factors at play in the relationship.

"Results from dogs indicate that genetics play a role," Nawroth said, adding that early experience with humans also seems to be a factor affecting the goat's behavior.

McElligott said that dogs view praise itself as a reward, which helps to fuel human-canine interactions. He and his colleagues are not sure yet if goats value human-offered praise as well.

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It appears, then, that domestication of any kind, even if it is just driven by food needs, can forever change how another species views us.

"Approximately one billion goats are used in farming worldwide, and we need to understand their cognitive abilities in order to improve welfare guidelines for them," McElligott said. "A very small proportion of goats are kept as pets, but better knowledge of the species in general could also help those."

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Jan Langbein, of the Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology, did not work on this study but has collaborated before with Nawroth on research concerning goats. He believes the new paper is of interest for many reasons.

"It broadens our understanding about the impact of domestication and human-animal interaction on cognitive abilities of animals and questioned some of the underlying theories," Langbein said. "Deeper understanding of the outstanding cognitive abilities of various farm animal species will probably help to achieve better welfare standards. Public knowledge about cognition in, and emotions of, farm animals will change consumers' attitudes towards them."

Marie Nitzschner, formerly at MPI-EVA in Germany, is an independent researcher who studies dog-human communication and cooperation. She noted that the socio-cognitive skills of dogs and horses used to seem outstanding in the animal kingdom, but it could be that we have underestimated the abilities of other domesticated animals. She was astounded that goats exhibited human-directed referential communication.

Nitzschner told Discovery News: "This is quite a surprising finding, and questions the hypothesis that the selection for companionship shaped the human-directed, socio-cognitive skills in dogs and horses. Potentially, domestication itself might have a bigger impact on cognition than previously thought."

She concluded: "The growing body of literature on the cognitive skills of domestic, non-companion species might also have implications on how we treat goats and other farm animals. It seems that their cognitive skills are not so different from those our beloved dogs."