Not only can goats tell when people are happy, but they also prefer interacting with happy people.

Goats at the Buttercups Sanctuary. Image credits: Christian Nawroth.

It took us a while to figure it out and prove it, but now we know that animals feel and have empathy. Not only do they understand each others’ emotions, but they can also understand our emotions — something which is especially visible in pets, and even more so with dogs. As our closest companions since the dawn of time, dogs have greatly familiarized themselves with our mood and way of life, even evolving alongside us.

But dogs aren’t the only domestic animals that can read our emotions.

In the first study to ever assess this on goats, researchers explain that goats can differentiate between happy and angry facial reactions, and they prefer happy ones. Dr. Alan McElligott who led the study at Queen Mary University of London and is now based at the University of Roehampton, said:

“The study has important implications for how we interact with livestock and other species, because the abilities of animals to perceive human emotions might be widespread and not just limited to pets.”

Bernard the goat clearly likes happy people.

During the study, which was carried out at Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, England, researchers showed 20 goats grey-scale pairs of unfamiliar human faces, exhibiting happy or angry emotions. The team reports that happy faces elicit greater interactions — goats were more likely to reach out to them and explore with their snouts. Furthermore, this was particularly prevalent when the happy faces were positioned on the right, suggesting that the goats use their left (opposite) brain hemisphere to process positive emotions. Overall, this shows just how adept goats have become at reading human body language.

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First author Dr. Christian Nawroth, who worked on the study at Queen Mary University of London but is now based at Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology, praises goats’ ability to ‘read’ humans and says that while their ability was previously hinted on, this is the first study that shows goat prefer happy people.

McElligott with a goat which clearly likes that he’s happy. Image credits: Alan McElligott.

“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. 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.”

The study of emotion perception has already revealed complex capabilities in dogs and horses, says co-author Natalia Albuquerque, from the University of Sao Paulo. But this opens up a whole new avenue, paving the way for studying emotion perception on all domestic animals. It wouldn’t be surprising if, to some extent, all animals can tell when we’re happy.

The study has been published in Royal Society Open Science.

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