Do Goats Have Accents and Why? Goat Social Behavior
Are Goats Social Animals and Do Goats Need Friends?
Reading Time: 7 minutes
Researchers at Queen Mary University London found that goat kids develop group accents and each group bears a unique vocal stamp. This and other studies of goat bleats and body language provide scientific evidence that goats are highly social animals. Questions, such as, “Do goats have accents?” lead to deeper ones, such as why? And how do such facts relate to our husbandry practices? It could be important to know what goats are saying when they bleat, and why they headbutt, for example. Most importantly, we need to know if goats need friends, and what kinds of companion are suitable.
Indeed, the social goat needs the company of familiar and bonded individuals. When their social needs are fulfilled, they are more likely to lead happy and healthy lives. This applies to all domesticated herd animals, as they have evolved to seek the safety of the family group. The accent of goat calls defines each group as a self-supporting clan, and each kid as a welcome member. This need for familiar companionship is common to goats of all breeds and purposes, whether pet goats, working goats, large goats, or pygmy goats. By understanding goat social behavior, we can meet their needs more easily.
Why Are Goats Social Animals?
Goats are highly social. Being in familiar company gives each goat a sense of security. As animals that evolved to defend themselves from predators, they seek safety in numbers. Being alone is very distressing for goats. In addition, they benefit from the emotional support of their friends and relatives, which helps them to deal with stressful events. However, only the company of favored individuals will do. Goats want to be with their friends and the goats they grew up with. They do not welcome strangers. But, how did this specific behavior arise and what can we do to respect goats’ social needs?
Goats evolved in the high mountains of the Middle East where forage was hard to find and predators many. For their own protection, goats live in herds. The herd improves the chances of each individual’s survival. That is because many eyes improve their chances of spotting danger, and goats who do, warn the others. While ranging over sparse vegetation, many eyes make it easier to find the most nutritious food. During the breeding season, it is easier to find mates if they congregate. On the other hand, each animal is competing for the same resources: food, shelter, rest/hiding places, and mates.
Respecting the Pecking Order
Goats balance these challenges by forming small groups of related females. Males leave the family as they reach maturity. Then, they rove over the hills in bachelor herds of youngsters who grew up together. Bucks join female clans for the breeding season, but otherwise remain in all-male groups.
To reduce competition between group members, goats establish a hierarchy. This means that they do not have to fight over resources on every occasion. As they grow, kids assess one another’s strength through play. As adults, ranking tends to depend on age, size, and horns. Older members, at least up to their prime, are generally more dominant, having larger body and horn size. Subordinates give way, allowing them first choice of resources.
Why Do Goats Headbutt?
At times, when the pecking order is not clear, it needs to be resolved through contest. This occurs as youngsters grow and challenge the ranking, when former members rejoin the group, and when new goats are introduced.
Hierarchy is established through horn clashing and head-to-head pushing. The intention is to subdue rather than maim. A goat submits when he or she feels that the opponent is stronger. Thereafter there is no argument. The dominant only has to approach for the subordinate to get out of the way. At most, staring or lowering the head is enough of a warning to displace the rival. The underling signals acquiescence with a quiet bleat.
Problems arise in the confinement of pens or barns. Here, weaker animals may not be able to get away fast enough, getting trapped by an obstacle. In this case, the dominant will deliver a painful butt to the flank. To avoid such aggression, we make sure goats can circulate freely without getting cornered. We ensure this by opening up any dead ends within enclosures. Platforms help, as young animals can jump up out of reach. Hiding places enable vulnerable goats to keep out of sight of their challengers. Feeding racks need to be adequately spaced to allow goats to feed together without fighting.
Strong Family and Friendship Bonds
There is more to social life than just competition, of course. From the very start, dam and kids forge strong bonds. This is vital in the wild, where kids are easy prey. When raising kids on the dam naturally, you may observe this behavior. At first, the mother hides her kids and revisits them periodically to suckle. After a few days or weeks, the kids stay close to their dam. Then, gradually they start to get together more often with other kids from the herd. At five weeks, they are becoming more independent and more socially integrated.
Even so, they remain close to their mothers until weaning completes at three to five months old. Doelings maintain strong bonds with their mother until she kids again. At this point, she drives them off, but they often return after kidding and remain bonded for life. If you need to reintroduce yearlings to the doe herd, after kidding is a time when does are more accepting. Females who grow up together remain bonded and often split off into small groups of their own.
Why Do Goats Have Accents?
Kid groups develop distinctive accents that define them as members of their gang. This helps them to instantly identify an unseen caller as one of their own or a stranger. In this way, they can find each other quickly in the underbrush. This means that they can protect themselves while the adults are out of sight. As they grow, they spend more and more time with their group of pals and siblings. Together, they learn to compete through play fighting, how to reconcile after competition, how to reinforce friendship bonds, and how to tolerate competition from each other without breaking their alliance.
Do Goats Need Friends?
Research has confirmed that goats form friendships with other individuals, normally from their nursery group, but sometimes with unrelated goats. These relationships develop when goats have time to form long-term bonds in a stable group. Bonded goats compete less and tolerate proximity better in confinement and at the feed rack. Such friendships provide moral support and emotional comfort. They also provide stimulation for those smart and active goat minds. When we change the composition of the herd through trading animals, we disrupt the harmony and stability that allows these bonds to grow. Goat friends may still fight, normally in play, but sometimes in serious competition. Researchers have recorded that they reconcile after disputes by resting close together. Lower ranking goats may also form alliances to ease access to resources.
How Do Goats Communicate?
To navigate such social complexity, goats communicate using calls and body language. Tails, ears, bleats, and facial expressions are all involved in signaling their intentions, emotions, and warnings. Scientists have logged evidence that goats respond to these signals. In addition, goats are aware of the point of view of others. They gather what others are perceiving, feeling, and have an idea of what others know. Indeed, they will react according to whom they are placed with. For instance, goats turn around to look in the direction that their herd-mates are looking. In another example, a subordinate favored food hidden from a dominant’s view. They even changed the way they sought feed depending on the personal history between the pair.
What We Can Do to Maximize Harmony
To enable goats to form stable groups and beneficial relationships, we can adopt the following recommendations. Firstly, kids develop more balanced personalities if they stay with their dam. Experts suggest at least six to seven weeks, although longer is preferable. From five weeks old, dairy kids can be grouped overnight apart from the dams to allow milking in the morning. Kids then browse with their mothers during the day. As long as they are with their family group, they are learning foraging and social skills.
Secondly, goat housing can be structured to allow space, privacy, escape routes, and grouping with preferred companions. Most importantly, herds work best when kept as stable as possible. So, when introducing new animals or selling them, keep friends or families together, and introduce in pairs or small groups. All in all, these simple measures will lead to a happy, robust, and harmonious herd.
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Lead photo by Stewart Butterfield/flickr CC BY 2.0
Originally published in the March/April 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.