Study finds that goats can understand human facial expressions — and like it when we smile

Goats can be such adorable animals. When you go to a farm, it can be hard not to smile when you see one.

And it turns out that just the way they like it. A recent study has revealed that goats are more emotionally intelligent than we expected: they have the ability to read and recognize human facial expressions.

The study also revealed they respond more positively to a smile.


In 2018, Alan McElligott, an animal behavior researcher at the University of Roehampton, and a team of colleagues studied 20 domesticated goats at the Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in the UK.

The researchers used two photos of human faces—one happy and one angry—to see how the goats would react, and if there would be any difference in their reactions to the different expressions.

The study found that the goats could in fact perceive the human expressions, and reacted more positively to the friendly face.

“We found that goats preferred to interact first with happy faces, meaning that they are sensitive to human facial emotional cues,” the abstract reads.


“Given some of the other things that we’ve found out about goats, I guess we shouldn’t really be that surprised,” McElligott told The Scientist.

The study poses some interesting questions about goats and our relationship with animals in general. Goats would join dogs and horses in the select group of animals that have been found to understand human expressions, raising the question of what factor domestication plays.

“We show that animals domesticated for production can discriminate human facial expressions with different emotional valences and prefer to interact with positive ones,” the study reads.

“Therefore, the impact of domestication on animal cognitive abilities may be more far-reaching than previously assumed.”


Ultimately McElligott is hoping the study improves the welfare of these farm goats. By revealing that goats respond better to a friendly face than an “angry farmer,” and showing how intelligent these animals secretly are, he hopes they could be treated more ethically.

“Generally there is a widespread public perception of livestock . . . as being not particularly clever,” he told The Scientist.

“Ultimately our overall goal is to improve perceptions of these species so that people really understand the behaviors . . . and therefore might actually treat them a bit better.”

What an interesting study — goats are certainly more intelligent than we give them credit for.

So next time you see a goat, give them a big smile! Share this fascinating story!