How Do Goats Show Affection to Humans?
Interpreting Friendly Goat Body Language
Reading Time: 7 minutes
How do goats show affection? Wow! There’s a lot to unpack in this question!
First of all, what exactly is affection? Then, can goats feel it? And how do we know? Finally, as goats can’t talk, how do we know when they show affection?
What Is Affection?
Merriam-Webster.com describes affection as “a feeling of liking and caring for someone or something; tender attachment; fondness.” The word attachment here is very significant for goats. As mammals, a strong attachment or bond develops between a dam and her kids. Their biology provides this emotion to prioritize the kids’ survival, as they depend on their mother for safety, food, and learning. This is the same “attachment” that psychologists use to describe the emotional bond that forms between the human infant and caregiver.
Whereas in some animals, the bond fades as the juveniles mature and become self-sufficient, goats (particularly does and wethers) tend to maintain bonds with family and long-term companions for life. These bonds help them to survive in the wild, as groups are better at spotting predators and finding new forage. Consequently, goats are soothed by the presence of their bonded partners.
Are Goats Affectionate?
Of course, it’s impossible to know how anyone really feels, let alone a different species that doesn’t use words. However, scientists have measured ways that emotional events affect the body and have found that animals react much as humans do. They have measured animals’ facial expressions and posture, vocalizations (including goats’ bleats), heartbeat patterns, and hormone levels. Krause and Nawroth explain, “While we may never know exactly how animals feel, studies have found that there are definite behavioral and physiological similarities in emotional expressions between humans and animals. We can thus infer, with quite some confidence, that animals can feel emotions.” Affection may therefore be expressed as bonding behavior.
Do Goats Show Affection to Their Friends?
Attachment can be measured as a preference for some individuals over others. Bonded companions are those seen consistently in close proximity, those who lie down with their bodies touching, and those who rub each other with the head or neck. Studies show that goats are particular about whom they socialize with in this way, and that preferred partners are independent of their rank in the hierarchy.
Do Goats Show Affection to Humans?
When goats are familiar with humans, they tend to interact with us rather fully. Researchers have noted their sensitivity to human expression and willingness to communicate with us. Like dogs, goats look to humans when they need help. But can we know if there is affection in their attentions and whether they actually bond with us?
Approach behavior is often used as a measure of how goats respond to human presence. Just the fact that a goat comes to you rather than running away shows that the goat has a positive perception of humans (or you in particular). Similarly, studies of goats in isolated pens found that they approached familiar humans and called out less in their presence, suggesting that they found human company comforting.
How Goats Maintain Friendly Social Bonds
I propose that we observe how bonded goats treat each other to know what a display of affection would be. For example, goats greet each other with a gentle quiet bleat. I have found that my goats often call out to me in this way when they hear my voice.
How about physical interactions? For example, when goats rub against us, are they just scratching an itch or self-massaging? After all, they love to rub against trees, posts, and fences. Perhaps that is part of the reason why they do it. On the other hand, goats seem to have particular friends they like to rub against. In Toinon et al.’s study, goats were selective about whom they rubbed and whom they touched while lying down. The researchers described this rubbing as scraping the head, horns, or neck toward a passive receiver’s head, horns, neck, or body, without causing the recipient to withdraw.
When my goats rub each other, the recipient extends and lowers her neck and looks very relaxed. Again, in my herd, it is always the same pairs that engage in this behavior.
This same interaction is often seen between goats and the humans they trust. In one study, after several sessions with a masseur, some of the goats not only approached willingly to be treated, but some displayed the following friendly interactions: sniffing, licking, nibbling, or rubbing the head against the masseur, lowering the head, and placing the head on the masseur’s lap.
My goats treat me in a similar way. When I am feeding them or leading them to pasture, sometimes one or two does approach for caresses before turning away to eat. I must rank well in their affections for them to prioritize me before food! I have a particular doe who lays her head on my back (over my shoulder when I crouch down). This is a behavior that I often see between bonded goats. Furthermore, during ritual combat, sometimes a doe withdraws and comes to stand against my leg, perhaps for reassurance. And when a goat is ailing or kidding and I attempt to leave her side, she bleats loudly until I return.
How to Get Goats to Like You
Whether it’s love, need, or desire for food, any cooperative relationship between people and goats makes handling less stressful for both species. This results in us enjoying our work more, while goats benefit from better welfare.
Goats that are not familiar with people can be wary at first, as they would naturally see us as a potential predator. The easiest way to tame goats is to start getting them used to your presence from birth, or at least from as young as possible. Initially, you may just need to be present in a non-threatening way. Providing feed helps to build trust. It is important to pay attention to goats’ response to your behavior to judge what they find frightening. Favor slow movements and quiet gentle speech. Let the goat make the first move. Crouch down if possible and keep still while the goat approaches and initiates contact and touch. Once the goat is used to you, you can attempt gentle touching.
When a goat seeks human attention and touch, it is a sure sign that we are accepted. Enforced petting will not have the desired effect. But, when the goat has the choice, you may see signs like relaxed ears and facial muscles; the lips may protrude or droop; the neck may extend and lower; the goat will stand still or lean against you, or even present a part of the body to be rubbed.
Can Goats Love Humans?
One aspect of Merriam-Webster’s definition I have not yet addressed is the aspect of “caring” for another being. Goats show the basic signs of empathy in that they are affected by one another’s emotions, as revealed in calls and posture. This is a necessary survival trait as it warns herd members of danger. Indeed, mothers are very attentive to their young kids’ needs until they are independent. Subsequently, it makes sense for the herd to care about its members as it relies on them for survival. There may be no research in this area for goats yet, but I have a personal anecdote that surprised me.
When crossing the pasture with the goats following me, I fell and hurt myself, emitting a yell. All the goats immediately circled around and approached me gently, sniffing at me. It certainly made me feel important to the herd!
- Krause, A., Nawroth, C, 2021. Animal emotions—do animals feel as we do? Frontiers for Young Minds, 9, 622811.
- Stanley, C.R., and Dunbar, R.I.M., 2013. Consistent social structure and optimal clique size revealed by social network analysis of feral goats, Capra hircus. Animal Behaviour, 85(4), 771–779.
- Toinon, C., Waiblinger, S., and Rault, J.-L., 2019. Socio-positive interactions in goats: prevalence and social network. In Newberry, R.C. and Braastad, B.O. [Eds], ISAE 2019 Proceedings of the 53rd Congress of the ISAE: Animal Lives Worth Living. Wageningen Academic Publishers.
- Toinon, C., Waiblinger, S., and Rault, J.-L., 2021. Maternal deprivation affects goat kids’ stress coping behaviour. Physiology & Behavior, 239, 113494.
- Rault, J.-L., Waiblinger, S., Boivin, X., and Hemsworth, P., 2020. The power of a positive human–animal relationship for animal welfare. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 7, 590867.
- Celozzi, S., Battini, M., Prato-Previde, E., and Mattiello, S., 2022. Humans and goats: improving knowledge for a better relationship. Animals, 12(6), 774.
- Leite, L.O., Bezerra, B.M.O., Kogitzki, T.R., Polo, G., Freitas, V.J.D.F., Hötzel, M.J., and Nunes-Pinheiro, D.C.S., 2020. Impact of massage on goats on the human-animal relationship and parameters linked to physiological response. Ciência Rural, 50(9), 1–11.
Lead photo by Dan Dennis on Unsplash
Originally published in the May/June 2023 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.