Despite all the media fuzz, goats are not the new dogs

Why people should not keep goats in a dog environment, and what to do instead.

How to care for pet goats. Goats are social and should be housed in groups, like here
Photo: Christian Nawroth

Guest post by Christian Nawroth, PhD.

Media coverage of recent goat cognition research gives the impression that goats might be the new dogs when it comes to communicating with humans, and so can make good pets. But can you keep a goat in a dog environment? Short answer: You shouldn’t, if you care about their welfare.

Recent media coverage on research on the cognitive skills of goats might have falsely given the impression that goats are horned dog-equivalents. Indeed, goats show surprisingly dog-like skills: They gaze at humans in the same way as dogs do when asking for a treat that is out of reach. Similarly to dogs, goats are also skilful readers of the human pointing gesture when it comes to using this information to find a hidden reward. They also understand that people who have turned their back on them are unable to see them. Recently it was discovered that goats, much like humans, prefer happy human faces. These findings provide strong evidence that goats have excellent communication skills when interacting with humans which seem to, at least partly, mirror those found in dogs.

Goats show surprisingly dog-like skills, like this one taking part in research. Here's how to care for pet goats.
Photo: Christian Nawroth

Given all these exciting research findings (and multiple headlines asking “Are goats the new dogs?”), some might find it tempting to substitute a pet dog with a pet goat. But despite these shared cognitive capacities, goats are unlikely to thrive in a dog environment as they have different needs and motivations than our canid friends.

First of all, goats have been bred mainly for production purposes such as milk, meat and fibre. The picture looks quite different for dogs as their specific domestication history as companion animals over several ten thousand years adapted them far better to the human environment. While dogs are prone to establish strong bonds with humans (and often tend to prefer humans over other dogs), goats very much prefer the company of other goats over humans (although bottle-fed goats can get quite attached to humans). If you still think that a pet goat would be a good idea you should make sure you meet some of their most basic needs: give them outdoor space (i.e. a huge backyard) and good company (i.e. keep them in pairs, at least).

If you can provide these needs, many recommendations from goat farming can be useful guidelines on how to meet the needs of your pet goats:

1. Goats have an individual space which they do not like to have disturbed. Providing them with a raised area, as well as an area where they can hide away, gives them the opportunity to do this.  Another important consideration is how feed is presented. Unlike what you may have heard, goats do not eat everything! They are actually very picky eaters. This is why we often see goats ‘browsing’ or sampling different kinds of vegetation. If given the option, goats will eat at different levels (and you may even see them standing on their hind legs to reach leaves). Goats will also compete for access to the best feed, with higher ranking goats chasing away subordinate individuals. By providing multiple feeders, at different heights and providing a varied diet, aggression between goats will be reduced, and it will encourage their natural behaviour of browsing.

What goat cognition research means for animal welfare of pet goats
Photo: Agroscope

2. Horns are a means for communication in goats (and other horned species). In commercial farming situations, horns can be a source of injury to other goats and humans, so they are often removed at a young age. However, horns serve a valuable purpose, and we know that when given enough space to avoid bullies there are actually fewer aggressive interactions over feed and other resources when goats have horns. Horned goats use their horns to intimidate rivals non-physically (e.g., by lowering their head), and less dominant goats usually get the hint and move away. Dehorned goats do not have this opportunity.

3. Goats have friends and like their company. Like you might expect, the longer a group of goats is kept together, the more comfortable they with one another; they spend more and more time closer to each other. This is part of the reason new goats need to be introduced to a group of other goats very carefully. Introducing them as pairs is better than throwing a single goat into the mix. If you need to introduce a single goat, it is best to do so slowly by giving her or him their own space first, and let the rest get to know her or him over the fence. However, remember that goats are very social, and should not be kept alone for an extended period.

4. Goats love elevated spaces and hiding opportunities. This can be used to your advantage for a number of reasons. First, goats’ hooves grow continuously; providing them with an opportunity to climb, particularly hard surfaces like large rocks or concrete blocks will help you reduce the amount of times you need to trim their feet. Second, giving goats a third dimension to move not only fulfils their motivation to climb, it gives them an opportunity to isolate from other goats and gives them a choice of where they spend their time. This is known to lower aggression encounters in the group. Third, providing structures within their environment provides shelter – goats should never be kept outdoors without access to a shelter.

Goats like raised spaces, like these two relaxing on a table. How to care for pet goats
Photo: Agroscope

Like all pets, the decision to get pet goats should not be made quickly. Unfortunately, the number of relinquished goats at Humane Societies is a good indicator that more consideration should be given by hopeful goat owners. Goats are inquisitive and smart animals that have needs which are very different from other pets we are used to having; that can suffer greatly when not provided with an appropriate environment. But if you can provide them with a goat-friendly backyard, company and a structured and complex environment, they surely will raise the welfare of their human keepers, too.

Goat Care Resources

Here are some additional sources on (pet) goat behaviour and welfare:

About Christian Nawroth

Christian Nawroth. Photo: Nordlicht/FBN

Christian Nawroth, PhD, is a postdoc in the Institute of Behavioural Physiology (Twitter) at the Leibniz-Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Dummerstorf, Germany. He is interested in how animals perceive and interact with their physical and social environment. In particular, his research focuses on the cognitive capacities of farm animals and how this knowledge can ultimately be used to improve management conditions and human-animal interactions. You can check out Christian Nawroth's website and follow him on Twitter.

Follow me!

Support me