It’s Written on Goats’ Faces
Understanding Goat Intelligence and Recognizing Body Language and Facial Expressions
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Do goats’ faces express their feelings? And do they recognize ours? Animal behavior researchers are busy finding out.
Goats are smart animals. They make facial expressions and respond to those of other goats, as researchers are discovering. They can pick up social signals from companions and herd-mates through body language, bleating, and also more subtle expressions, such as tension in the facial muscles.
Last year, Scottish and French scientists found that goats paid more attention to photographs of herd-mates showing negative expressions (in response to an unpleasant sensation) than to herd-mates looking relaxed (during a grooming session). This demonstrates that they recognize feelings conveyed by their companions’ faces.
We are so used to communicating through words and expressions; little do we realize our farmyard friends may use systems similar to ours. In fact, facial expression is a hot topic among animal welfare researchers as a potential key to understanding what livestock need for optimum health and welfare. Emotional expression is both a communicative gesture and a display of inner feelings. Mammals have similar facial muscles, which are affected by emotion in similar ways: tension in stressful, painful and other negative circumstances; relaxation at calm moments; protection of eyes and ears during danger; and movement of eyes, ears and nostrils to capture important input.
We can generalize that wide-open eyes revealing whites indicate a negative state of mind, normally fear or stress. Eyelids are retracted to improve peripheral vision, so increasing vigilance and readiness to react to danger. Whites of the eyes are revealed as eyeballs move around, checking for signs of danger. Ears swivel around to pinpoint the direction of potential threats. Surprise and uncertainty are marked by ears pointing in different directions. These are all good defense mechanisms to protect the animal from danger. However, exposure to too many frightening events is not good for your herd’s health or peace of mind. Continual stress lowers the immune system and reduces growth and yield.
Fear and other negative emotions, such as pain and anger, are commonly accompanied by tension in the muscles, which changes the shape of the face. Tension may be seen around the eyes, nostrils and in the jaw and lips.
Hiding the Pain
How could facial expression help us spot negative reactions in our goats? I’m sure you’ve seen a lame goat suddenly burst away energetically as soon as you try to catch her. Your three-legged goat is suddenly running fine on all fours. You may feel she can’t be in that much pain if she can run like that. Perhaps you wonder if she is putting on the limp. Actually it is likely to be the other way round: she is suppressing her pain reaction to avoid being caught. You may only wish to give her aid, but in her mind being caught is a dangerous risk.
Before domestication, farm animals had already adapted their behavior to avoid predators. They tend to hide the effect of pain in their movements, not wishing to attract attention. They protect themselves from any circumstance that might cause them further pain or damage, including our interventions, as they don’t realize we are trying to help them. This means that an injured or sick goat might spring into action and act perfectly well as soon as you try to catch her. However, psychologists believe facial expressions are not as readily hidden, even for humans. Animals appear to have less control over facial expressions than other postures and movements. This opens up a promising path to evaluating hidden animal pain through observing facial changes.
Many mammalian species have similar pain expressions, which makes it easier for us to recognize them. Pain expressions have been successfully defined for sheep, cattle and horses. Similar expressions can be seen on goats’ faces during pain and illness. A sick goat may lay back her ears or hang them low, eyes may be semi-closed, jaw and nasal muscles tense, lips tight or pouting.
Facial features do not only express the negative. Relaxed facial muscles indicate positive emotions are in play. Relaxation and positive states of mind are important for goats to get the rest they need, cope better with any changes and fight disease. A goat being groomed droops her ears as she relaxes. Facial muscles go slack and the lower lip may loosen.
As social animals, friendly interactions are important for goats, and relaxed goat faces may indicate amicable intentions. During play, postures and expressions that imitate aggression are often adopted, so it is harder to gauge the seriousness of interactions. However friendly matches tend to be less intense, more ritualistic and with frequent pauses for gentle gestures, such as mouth or horn sniffing.
Goats also use their faces to signal their intent. Once a hierarchy is settled, a dominant goat will simply warn, rather than attack, by lowering her head with her ears high up and rotated towards the side or back. She’ll dip her head towards an underling she wishes to move out of her way, gesturing with her horns. At close quarters, she may add stronger signals such as a grunt, flared nostrils and raised hackles. When the underling submits, she shows a fearful face, with ears laid back, and moves quickly away. She may utter a quiet moan of acquiescence.
Minimal signaling should maintain the status quo and avoid painful encounters. However, in confined spaces, like within a shelter, aggression can break out. Careful design can provide escape routes and hiding places to diffuse such encounters. Where dominant animals defend food or water, subordinates may not get enough of the right nutrition. Continual clashes also cause social stress with its detrimental effect on health and production. Behavior monitoring can help us to design our housing to restore harmony.
Giving the Wrong Signals
Facial expression has good potential to tap into the inner feelings of our animals, but there are limitations. Many facial changes are common to different emotions. Without context and other observations we may incorrectly interpret some expressions. Pain, fear and anger produce many common facial signs. Mock aggressive faces are often worn at play. In addition, expressions might vary between individuals. I have one goat who pouts during grooming sessions – a sign often associated with pain – but she is clearly enjoying it and wanting more!
Researchers have found sleeping, sedated or anesthetized animals may show pain expressions even though they are unlikely to be feeling anything. So facial expressions should not be used alone, but as one of many clues as to how an animal is feeling. Postural, behavioral and clinical indicators are also required for veterinary diagnosis. However, pain may not always be visually apparent in chronic cases. Sadly, chronic, subclinical disease seriously affects welfare and productivity.
Facial expressions can be fleeting and might be missed unless time is spent with your animals. The excitement of human interaction could temporarily mask or disrupt the expression. If you spend a little time with them after your husbandry routine, their behavior will return to normal and you can observe their body language.
Although scientific mapping of caprine expression is currently incomplete, evidence for ear positions can be found in the French and British studies: ears are positioned backward more often in negative situations, hanging down while relaxed during grooming, and forward when excited, alert or interested. Knowledge of goats’ face expression, along with other behavioral signs, shows promise of providing diagnostic tools for the early detection of health issues as well as indicating if improvements need to be made in our handling and management systems for raising goats.
What a great excuse to go goat watching! But what do they make of our expressions? Scientific research has confirmed that they seek out our faces when attracting our attention and they look to us for help and guidance. We also know that they are sensitive to our facial expressions. What is your experience? How do your goats show their feelings? And how do they react to your voice and expression?
Bellegarde, L.G., Haskell, M.J., Duvaux-Ponter, C., Weiss, A., Boissy, A. and Erhard, H.W., 2017. Face-based perception of emotions in dairy goats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
Briefer, E.F., Tettamanti, F. and McElligott, A.G., 2015. Emotions in goats: mapping physiological, behavioural and vocal profiles. Animal Behaviour, 99, pp.131-143.
Descovich, K.A., Wathan, J., Leach, M.C., Buchanan-Smith, H.M., Flecknell, P., Farningham, D. and Vick, S.J., 2017. Facial expression: An under-utilised tool for the assessment of welfare in mammals. ALTEX, 34(3), p.409.
Nawroth, C. 2017. Invited review: Socio-cognitive capacities of goats and their impact on human–animal interactions. Small Ruminant Research, 150, pp.70–75.
Originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy. Last updated February 2020.