They are maligned for their washing line-masticating proclivities and mythologised for their troll head-butting talents but rarely have they been thought of as charming companions. Until now.
Scientists have shown that goats can form relationships with humans in the same way as dogs and are considerably better at doing so than cats.
Researchers investigated how the animals performed in a “gaze behaviour” task. When domesticated animals are given a problem to solve, but are unable to do so, sometimes they will look to the face of a human for clues.
The extent to which they do this is considered a measure of their bond with humans. Dogs will often look at human faces for guidance, horses will do so a little less and cats almost never lower themselves to do so.
The question was whether goats would be able to form such bonds. There was some evidence that they might do. The actress Reese Witherspoon has three as pets.
The RSPCA offers advice for people considering having goats, describing them as “good companion animals”, though conceding that they do not always get along with fences or neighbours.
The scientists wanted to see whether owners were deluding themselves in believing that they had a bond.
They recruited goats from Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent and gave them some food in a clear plastic box, which they could retrieve only if they tipped it over.
After eliminating the goats who could not work out what to do with the box, they then repeated the task but this time with the box glued down.
All of them quickly realised something was up. “They would nudge it a little with their mouths, or their hoofs, and then they would approach the handler,” Alan McElligott, from Queen Mary, University of London, said.
There was a twist. The handler was facing the goat only half the time.
The scientists, writing in the Royal Society’s Biology Letters, found that when the goats realised that they could not tip the box they were much more likely to gaze entreatingly at their handler if they could see his or her face.
Dr McElligott warned people to think carefully before choosing them as pets, however. “They are sociable but they do need a field,” he said. “I wouldn’t keep them in a town. Don’t chuck out the cat or dog just yet.”