Many people think of livestock such as goats as less intelligent than the domesticated pets we keep in our homes. The Border Collie is a prime example of a dog that has developed a keen awareness of its environment and job to exceed whatever perceptions anyone would have about animal intelligence. This breed is smart beyond compare.

Part of the reason that dogs—and humans—are intelligent is that our brains can reorganize and restructure in response to our environment and survival challenges. Scientists call this ability neuroplasticity. That could explain the perceived lower intelligence that some attribute to livestock. It’s not a demanding life to get fed as much as you can eat in a warm, safe place to sleep at night.

The consequences of domestication in livestock have affected cognition or an animal’s ability to learn and reason without anything to challenge it. Nevertheless, the goat is a different creature altogether. While they’re social like sheep, they are also unafraid to venture outside of their comfort zone. That suggests goats can learn, which would make a compelling case for intelligence.

new goat divider Effects of Socialization

Two of the most prominent explanations for the evolution of cognition center on either the individual process of learning or collective social group as drivers. The former involves problem-solving skills, such as tool use, and their role in their survival and cognitive ability. The latter holds that the social group gives organisms an evolutionary edge. It’s the one you see in animals like goats.

The hypothesis looks to the advantages that this approach provides. There are multiple sets of eyes alert for predators—or food. Members can learn skills from one another. This lifestyle facilitates communication at several levels. These factors give us some evidence for the intelligence of goats.

goats in the wild
Image Credit: Artur Pawlak, Pixabay

Evidence of Learning and Long-Term Memory

Research with farm animals and goats has increased, if just for the fact that there are both pets and livestock. Scientists can compare the effects of domestication on a finer level. It’s also opened other avenues of research involving both individual animals and herds. A study looked at the goat’s ability to learn complex foraging tasks with food-box experiments similar to those used with other animals.

The researchers found that not only could the goats learn the task, but they also remembered how to do the challenge after months with no reinforcement. These results provide compelling evidence that goats can master new skills and store this information in their memory for later retrieval. However, there are distinct differences in how goats gather information.

Part of it comes from their evolutionary history. They live in harsh environments in the wild that would require them to search for food and move into different areas to find it. They’d have to process this information efficiently to ensure their survival. The goat’s ability to figure out the food-box challenge fits in with this animal’s past.

Other work offers additional evidence for the intelligence of goats. Another study showed that these animals could distinguish different stimuli and make decisions based on what they see in experiments done with automated learning devices. While the sample size was small, the results nevertheless add to the body of evidence.

While they don’t have opposable thumbs, it’s worth noting that goats have a split upper lip that can act similarly when tool use or manipulation of objects is necessary. It’s vital to put this information in context with domestication. For example, pet dogs may lack some of the so-called street smarts of wolves. However, they can learn and respond to communication from their owners instead.

Oberhasli Goat
Image Credit: Budimir Jevtic, Shutterstock

Communication With Humans

Communication between people and their pets is well-documents. Research has shown that cats probably know their names. Scientists have demonstrated emotional contagion in dogs. Where do goats fit into the equation? We’ve talked about the social structure of these animals and how they learn from each other.

One study considered gazing behavior and its role in communication between goats and humans. These animals will follow the gaze of another member of their group. It’s an excellent example of non-verbal cues exchanged within herds. The scientists considered whether that behavior applies to humans, too. Their findings showed that goats and people don’t communicate this way.

Instead, the goats didn’t acknowledge a human’s gaze but responded to a person pointing or touching the animals to find food. Interestingly, dogs also use these signals to their advantage, whereas wolves do not. That suggests that domestication has promoted these skills in animals that share this type of relationship with people.

woman taking picture with goats
Image Credit: Piqsels

new goat divider Final Thoughts

The research shows that goats use their cognitive abilities to solve problems and learn skills to ensure their survival. They show them both at the individual and group levels. The current information only scratches the surface. These animals can form attachments with humans, which further confirms what goats can do. Further research will likely reveal much more.

Featured Image Credit: sipa, Pixabay