Goats Know If Their Friends are Happy or Sad. Do You?

According to a new scientific study it appears that goats can distinguish emotional changes in the calls of other goats–even subtle changes.

Study Overview of Methodology

Researchers measured behavioral and physiological changes in goats to determine if they can differentiate between calls linked to positive and negative emotions.

Researchers recorded calls of goats which conveyed either positive or negative emotions. They then played one of these calls through a loudspeaker to another goat. They subsequently exposed that goat to a variant of the same call type associated with the opposite emotion. This was followed by a final call which was randomly selected.

The researchers also controlled variables often neglected in this field of research by assessing the emotional state of both the caller and the receiver. In addition, only contact calls were used so that the reaction of the receiver would be purely dependent on the encoded emotions, rather than the function of vocalizations.

Study Findings

They found that when the emotion of a call changed, the likeliness of the goats to look towards the source of the sound also changed suggesting that they can distinguish the emotional content of calls of another goat.

The results also indicated that the goats’ heart-rate variability — the variation in time between each heartbeat — was greater when positive calls were played compared to when negative calls were played.

Together, these results provide the first strong evidence that goats are not only able to distinguish call variants based on the emotion that they convey, but also that their own emotions are potentially affected.

“Our results suggest that non-human animals are not only attentive, but might also be sensitive to the emotional states of other individuals.”  -Dr. Luigi Baciadonna, lead author of the study from Queen Mary University of London

So how does recognizing a fellow goat’s emotional state help these animals?

“Expressing emotions using vocalisations and being able to detect and share the emotional state of another animal from the same species may facilitate coordination among the individuals in a group and strengthen social bonds and group cohesion.”  -Dr. Elodie Briefer, University of Copenhagen

Can these findings impact animal welfare laws?

“Perceiving the emotional state of another individual through its vocalisations and being affected by those vocalisations has important implications for how we care for domestic animals, and in particular livestock species.”

-Dr. Alan McElligott, lead author of the study


Journal Reference:  Luigi Baciadonna, Elodie F. Briefer, Livio Favaro, Alan G. McElligott. Goats distinguish between positive and negative emotion-linked vocalisations. Frontiers in Zoology, 2019; 16 (1).

Study DOI: 10.1186/s12983-019-0323-z / overview