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Goats can recognize human emotions in the sound of a voice 

Researchers have discovered that goats possess the remarkable ability to distinguish between human emotions, specifically happiness and anger, merely through the sound of a voice. The study sheds new light on the emotional intelligence of livestock, particularly goats.

The research was co-led by Professor Alan McElligott, an expert in animal behavior and welfare at City University of Hong Kong (CityUHK).

Focus of the study

“Reading another animal’s emotional state can enable receivers to anticipate their behavioral motivations, which is important in guiding interactions with that individual. For species living closely alongside humans, the emotional cues that we express can be almost as informative as those of conspecifics,” wrote the researchers.

“Goats, Capra hircus, can discriminate differences in emotional valence present in another goat’s calls, and we investigated whether this ability extends to human speech.”

Fascinating insights

The study reveals a fascinating insight: goats seem to have developed a sensitivity to our vocal cues over their long association with humans. This ability highlights not only their emotional intelligence but also their adaptability to human presence.

“This study offers the first evidence that goats can discriminate between cues expressed in the human voice, namely, emotional valence,” said Professor McElligott. “These findings contribute to the limited literature available indicating livestock, like companion animals, are sensitive to human emotional cues.”

How the research was conducted 

For the investigation, goats were presented with a series of voice playbacks expressing either a positive (happy) or a negative (angry) emotional valence. 

In response to the recordings, the goats tended to spend longer gazing toward the source of the sound after a change in the valence of a human voice. This behavior was particularly noticeable when the playback switched from a happier to an angrier sounding voice or vice versa.

Gazing behavior

“We predicted that if goats could discriminate emotional content conveyed in the human voice, they would dishabituate, looking faster and for longer towards the source of the sound, following the first shift in valence,” said Dr. Marianne Mason of the University of Roehampton. 

The results were consistent with this theory, as 75% of the goats that looked at the speaker following a change in valence held their gaze for more extended periods.

Varied responses 

The study’s findings were not uniform across all goats. Some did not respond to the auditory cues, possibly due to variations in cognitive abilities among goats to perceive human emotional cues or other external factors.

Furthermore, no significant physiological changes, such as a raised heartbeat, were observed in the goats when exposed to changes in voice valence.

Study implications 

The research has profound implications for understanding animal behavior, welfare, and emotional experiences. 

Since goats and other livestock frequently hear the human voice in their daily lives, understanding how they perceive different emotional tones is crucial. Negative voices might induce fear, whereas positive ones could be calming and foster human-animal bonding.

“The observed differences in goat responses to human emotional cues may emphasise the importance of individual experiences and learning, particularly interspecific emotional communication,” said Professor McElligott. 

“Further research is needed to understand the importance of the human voice on the emotional lives and welfare of goats and other domesticated species.”

More about goats

Goats have formed a close bond with humans through thousands of years of domestication. They belong to the genus Capra and are closely related to sheep. 

Goats are used worldwide for their milk, meat, fur, and skin. In many cultures, they are particularly valued for their ability to thrive in harsh environments where other livestock might struggle.


Goats are known for their playful behavior and are often seen climbing and balancing in precarious places. They have a varied diet and are browsers by nature, often preferring to eat leaves, twigs, vines, and shrubs rather than grass.

Social structure 

Goats are generally herd animals and establish a social hierarchy within their group. This hierarchy is often determined through head-butting contests and other displays of dominance.

Female goats are called does or nannies, and males are known as bucks or billies. Young goats are called kids. Goats communicate with each other through bleats and other vocalizations, and they have been noted for their intelligence and ability to learn complex tasks.

Economic value 

In many parts of the world, goats play a significant role in the economy and culture. Their milk is often turned into cheese, which is a staple in many diets. In addition to dairy products, goats are also raised for their fiber; for example, the Cashmere and Angora breeds are prized for their luxurious wool.

The study is published in the journal Animal Behaviour

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