Goats detect slight emotional changes in other goats' calls

While bleating goats serve as adorable stars in online videos most people probably think the beasts simply make random noises. But a new study finds that goats recognize slight emotional changes in other goats’ calls and respond both behaviorally and physiologically, which indicates the listener’s feelings shift, too.

“There’s a lot of research studying animal emotions and studying vocalization is a window to these emotions,” Alan McElligott, an author of the paper published in Frontiers in Zoology, and a reader in animal behavior at the University of Roehampton in London, told TODAY. “They are able to perceive a positive or negative (emotion) and it could affect how they are feeling as well. It is very similar to what is happening in humans but I wouldn’t say it is the same.”

A new study shows that goats experience an emotional response when they hear another goat making a positive bleating noise. Courtesy of Alan McElligott

The findings reinforce what farmers have long believed about their animals: That they are curious, emotional creatures, attuned to those around them.

For the study researchers recruited 24 goats from the Buttercup Sanctuary for Goats in Kent. Each goat spent time in pen on the farm and listened to groups of positive and negative goat calls. While researchers observed the goats’ behavior they also used an external heart monitor to record the heart rate and heart rate variance, the pauses between heartbeats. When goats heard positive goat calls the time between their heart beats lengthened.

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“Their behavior changes and they look more to the source of the sound and there is a physiological affect as well,” he explained.

Researchers think that by understanding how goats responding to other goats' calls they can uncover the social lives of the creatures. Courtesy of Alan McElligott

Understanding goats’ emotions provides insight into their abilities and can help farmers make goats happier.

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“People were almost not aware that livestock animals were feeling emotions,” McElligott said. “It is just raising awareness of the cognitive abilities of these livestock animals. They are not meat and milk or hair producing machines. They have complex social lives.”