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“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.

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.