Goats prefer people with happy faces

Clark Diaz
August 30, 2018

It involved Dr Alan McElligott, now at the University of Roehampton, south west London, and colleagues showing the goats pairs of unfamiliar static human faces of the same individual - showing happy and angry expressions.

The goats that were attracted to the happy face spent more time looking at that photo than the goats who picked the angry face.

Alan McElligott, who led the research, hopes that the findings will raise awareness of the level of cognition displayed by goats and other livestock species, such as cattle and pigs. Because not all of the goats performed well in the training phase (some didn't seem to want to approach the experimenter), researchers ended up working with 20 animals.

The results were different when the happy photo was placed on the left-hand side instead of the right.

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It implies that it is not just companion animals, such as dogs and horses, that have an ability to perceive facial cues.

After studying how dogs can recognise human emotions in 2016, Albuquerque collaborated with some goat-focused researchers for this new study to see if goats could do the same.

A team of researchers recently recruited 35 goats from the lovely-sounding Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent, England, to take part in an intriguing experiment.

"I have no doubt that animals know when they've been treated kindly", she says. The researchers also switched up the positions of the images, with the positive image sometimes being on the right side of the pen, and other times on the left.

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When shown the photos from a distance of four yards, the goats generally made straight for the happy image, exploring it curiously with their snouts.

According to the study, this suggested that goats use the left hemisphere of their brains to process positive emotions. It isn't clear why this is the case, but the study authors posit that the way goats were bred over many years could have something to do with the animals' ability to read our expressions.

The team plans to continue studying emotional perception in goats to further uncover how farm animals process emotions.

They added: "We present the first evidence that goats can discriminate human facial expressions with different emotional information".

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Scientists have found that goats are drawn to humans with happy facial expressions. And yet, as the new study suggests, they may be able to pick up on humans' emotional cues. But this opens up a whole new avenue, paving the way for studying emotion perception on all domestic animals.

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