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Are goats smart? And why is it important for goat owners to understand how goats think?
By Tamsin Cooper – We’ve had to learn to be smart, to stay one step ahead of probing muzzles and fiddling lips that find their way into food bins or out of pens. We, their handlers, know how smart goats are. But do we think goat-wise, understanding caprine minds: how they see their environment and us, how they learn, how learning can affect their future experience, and how their experience affects their health and production? To this end, researchers continue to delve into the minds of goats, how they are affected by the production environment, and how they see us and interact with us.
In 2017, we have seen published results of studies into cognition, human-goat relationships, reproductive behavior and reaction to intensive conditions. Knowledge of the goats’ perspective enables us to design goat-friendly accommodation and tailor our procedures and handling techniques to reduce stress. Enjoyable, stress-free living will optimize the health and production of our animals—and us too!
What Matters to Goats
Are goats smart in the same way humans are? We know that goats are curious and quickly learn the best way to get treats. We’ve heard that they have long memories. This year, researchers in London, England, described how individuals differ in their understanding of the world. Some seek food in places where they’ve been successful before, while others go by the color or shape of food containers. Some learn more by investigating and others by watching. These personal differences have been found to be linked to personality types. Less sociable goats were better at finding food hidden in cups of different colors, perhaps because they worried less about their absent pen-mates. These goats tended to use shape and color of feed bowl to locate treats rather than rely on bowl position. Goats that explore less are better at tracking hidden objects when they are moved, possibly due to their calmer, observational manner.
Goats have shown that they can learn unusual tasks, even choosing abstract symbols to request a drink of water at the German research center. They can even restrain their natural urge to go for food seen through a barrier after learning the correct route to access the treat. Even so, many goats still let their belly rule their head!
Goats may appear to have one-track minds, but they devote a lot of thought to social issues, too. London researchers found that goats recognized the voices of their close friends and looked at their pen-mate when they heard the sound of their bleat. If there is a less familiar goat present when they heard an unknown bleat, they looked at the lesser-known individual, showing that they inferred this goat made the call.
They are sensitive to herd-mates’ facial expressions, too. French goats paid more attention when they saw the photographed face of a familiar goat in an unpleasant situation than when they saw that of a relaxed, contented companion. They also paid more attention to certain individuals’ pictures, and Alpines looked more at the photographs than Saanens.
Scent, of course, is an important social signal for goats, especially during the breeding season. Buck scent is attractive to does, and has also been found by New Jersey researchers to encourage male virility. By urinating on his beard and face, a buck increases his own testosterone levels as well as enticing females. A Mexican team studying reproduction found an active buck can even encourage does to perform sexual displays out of season, whether they have had previous sexual experience or not.
Kids need mothers’ milk, but dams too have their needs: adequate nutrition and a release from the physical drain of feeding growing young. As newborns naturally hide, it had been thought that they may feed less during the first week. However, Mexican researchers found that kids penned with their dam suckled most during the first week, when their dam rarely prevented them. After two weeks, dams increasingly rejected or interrupted suckling sessions, marking the start of a very gradual weaning process. Previous studies had shown that kids’ eagerness ensured them a steady milk supply, and natural weaning began in earnest at 6–7 weeks old, as kids’ intake of solid food increased. Contact between dam and kids helped to maintain a high milk production, and early separation can have the effect of reducing yield.
What Goats Think of Us
Are goats smart enough to understand our behavior? There was a focus this year on how goats interpret human appearance and behavior and how they interact with us. Handling is an important part of stress management and can make all the difference when we are obliged to carry out procedures like healthcare and transportation.
We’ve seen how goats learn new tricks by doing what we do, and this has been replicated in a scientific environment by researchers in London. Goats learned quicker to go around a barrier to get to food after watching a human do it.
The same team demonstrated how goats came to a human observer for help accessing a treat in a closed container. The goats consistently chose humans who were watching rather than others who were looking away. This observation gave rise to a series of trials to ascertain how goats chose a human assistant. Goats approach humans from the front when they want our attention, but are not concerned whether the human is looking away. This might be because goats have lateral eyes and can see well to the side as well as the front. They probably don’t realize that we have poor peripheral vision. They prefer to approach a human whose eyes are open and whose head is not obscured, so appear to realize our requirements to see. However, a partially obscured face did not seem to deter them, and the location of hands did not influence them. It seems they aim to gain our visual attention rather than going straight to our hands to check for treats.
Knowing how goats see us should help us to communicate effectively with them, which allows us to manage them smoothly.
How Goats React to Intensive Systems
Just a subtle change in human behavior can affect goats in ways that we may not envisage, unless we think goat-wise. This may affect goats in confined systems even more than those at range: firstly, because they may have less regular contact with humans, and secondly because they are less able to run from stressful situations.
Several studies have already addressed the effect of confinement, sterile environments and lack of space on goat behavior, and how to alleviate stress through good housing design and social conditions. Swiss ruminant housing specialists recommend that feeding shelves should be raised at least 10 cm (4 in) from the level of the front hooves to allow comfortable access. This corresponds well to goats’ natural grazing height and should avoid goats kneeling to feed. An Indian study of kids in different pen sizes confirms that larger stalls allow more comfort and healthy activity and reduce fighting. Mexican kids in enriched stalls showed fewer signs of stress.
Are goats smart? Absolutely. Studies will continue to investigate how mental and physical comfort can be achieved in indoor and outdoor systems, as happy goats mean a healthy and productive herd.
Originally published in Goat Journal November/December 2017 and regularly vetted for accuracy.
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