Exploring the social relationships of dairy goats

Goats are sentient beings capable of an emotional response to their lives. Yet despite this, the social relationships between animals are largely overlooked in commercial systems. Goats have been shown to recognise, and make decisions based on, the presence of other specific goats. The degree to which they choose to associate with individuals has not been established, but social bonds in other animals have been shown to buffer against stressful situations, and conversely can be a significant source of stress when such bonds are disrupted.

To investigate whether social relationships exist among dairy goats, 4 non-consecutive days of video focusing on a group of 12 goats was analysed. At one minute scan intervals, the proximity of every goat relative to every other goat was recorded as an ordinal variable with four levels (in contact, within a head length, within a body length, or alone). Each goat’s location in the pen was also noted (feeding, bedding, climbing platform).

A variety of statistical techniques, including heatmaps and network analyses, were used to study the social relationships among goats based on proximity. Social relationships were characterised by specific pairs of goats reliably spending a lot of time in close proximity.

Results indicate that whilst some goats were “sociable” (e.g., spending more than 60% of their time with other goats), others tended to be “loners” (e.g., spending more than 60% of their time alone). Interestingly, there was evidence of both preferred and avoided companionships.

This small-scale study provides the first evidence to suggest that common management practices resulting in the regrouping of dairy goats could have an impact on their welfare.