Goats really do make great pets - no kidding!
Goats have been the butt of many jokes but scientists are completely serious when they say that these animals could rival dogs when it comes to being man's - and woman's - best friend.
Researchers at Queen Mary University of London are trying to prove that goats are more intelligent than previously thought, and also that they are capable of forming the same sort of emotional bond with their owners as a canine or indeed feline companion.
And it seems they just might be onto something. For, thanks to 10,000 years of domestication, it would appear that goats are learning to communicate with humans in ways that other animals can't.
The scientists' latest experiment, documented in Biological Letters, showed that goats will gaze imploringly at their owners when they are struggling to complete a task, a trait common in dogs, but not wolves which have never learned how to co-exist with humans.
Interestingly, it was previously thought that goat intelligence was on a par with that of sheep, which are not renowned for their brainpower, the new research has shown that goats can figure out how to break into a sealed box using levers - a test used to calculate intelligence in apes. Four years on, they can remember the skill without prompting.
So, should you consider keeping a goat instead of a dog or cat?
The good news is that they are relatively simple to take care of, but the bad news is that their upkeep can cost considerably more than that of a dog.
They need an adequate and secure outdoor space and also require shelter during inclement weather. A mated nanny will require milking twice a day.
Nevertheless, there are 100,000 goats in Britain and those numbers are on the rise. We meet four people who think their goats are just great.
‘They are funny, affectionate, and intelligent ... and love opera music’
Wendi Kane (37) works for Belfast City Council and lives in Belfast with her partner Alan. She says:
I live in Belfast, but my family are from the north coast, so I go up there most weekends. I have one goat at the moment called Georgianna.
I’ve had goats all my life. The first one arrived on the scene when I was about five-years-old — a family friend came along and put a little kid in the back of our car and that’s been us with goats ever since.
The first goat was a lovely white one called Snowball. She had a baby, which we named Snowdrop.
After that I had another nanny goat called Caroline, then another called Emily, who was part of the family and lived until she was 16.
We’re still telling stories about Emily. Once, my little nephew got into a field full of sheep and they started towards him as if to attack him. My sister could see what was happening and clearly saw Emily put herself in the way of the sheep, so they couldn’t get to my nephew.
Goats are gorgeous, as well as being very caring animals. Georgianna came to me about three years ago as a six-month-old kid and has been with me ever since. I keep goats purely for enjoyment — Georgianna hasn’t kidded yet, so she doesn’t produce milk, but I might kid and milk her in the future.
The goats get on very well with the sheep we have on the farm — I have a sheep, too, to keep Georgianna company.
I’ve always found goats to be very funny animals, as well as being affectionate and very clean. They also love opera — if you play opera to goats they’ll really settle down and listen to it.
I love going to the farm and seeing Georgianna run up the field towards me. I was delighted to see this research endorse the fact that goats are bright animals, because in my experience they really are intelligent.”
'They're very practical as they will basically cut your grass for you'
Stephen Coulter (25) works as a programming officer for The Mac in Belfast. He says:
My parents have a bit of land in Ahoghill and we have two goats called Peter and Stephen. Dad bought them after my brother and I left home to replace us. I think he reckons the goats are better company than his sons.
Goats are really affectionate. If you like a bit of a cuddle, the way you would do with a dog or cat, then goats are brilliant on that front.
They're very cute too with their little beards and they make a very practical pet as they basically cut your grass for you. Peter and Stephen are normal-sized and they've turned out much bigger than I thought they would be. I'm 6ft 2in tall and they come up to almost my waist. Our goats have had the snip, so they're not grumpy - they only jump or butt you if they want to play.
We did have a family dog but once he passed away we found the goats made for an even better replacement.
We even take our goats for walks up and down the lane, so they can get some exercise though they don't need to be walked as much as a dog. Visiting the farm for a few days and spending time with the animals is very relaxing.
We've found that goats mostly look after themselves and are quite robust so nothing much bothers them. They eat absolutely everything including the clothes you're wearing so you need to be quite careful about that.
One of their favourite treats is a Rich Tea biscuit - if you want to make friends with a goat bring him one of those."
‘If they are handled at a young age they’ll be no trouble’
Emma Moulds (24) is a dog groomer and lives in Belfast. She says:
My dad is from a farming background but he lost interest in it after he married my mum. When I came along I was animal mad, so we started off with some chickens. Then we expanded our garden and dad bought a couple of goats.
We had bad luck with them — we fed them apples which are actually bad for goats, so we lost two of them. The last one was sold because she got too lonely.
A couple of years later, a cousin had pygmy goats and one of them had a male kid which started annoying the other goats. They asked if we wanted to take him on and I jumped at the chance.
Goats are herd animals, so they don’t do well on their own. We got him a friend and he ended up getting the friend pregnant. Slowly my one goat ended up turning into 16 goats.
I got my first pygmy goat when I was about 17. I’m still living at home with my parents and they’re constantly telling me I have far too many goats. I’ve started my dog grooming business and there’s land behind the premises, so I keep goats out there, too.
Goats are so inquisitive and playful. I found two or three goats just wasn’t enough for me, I had to have more than that. Pygmy goats are a meat breed from Africa, so they don’t need a lot of milking. It’s why they’re so cute — they’re chunky and small. All I need to do is give them fresh water, hay and goat meal.
My goats are very clever — they’re real escape artists and are forever finding their way through fences. They can get in to feed bins if they’re not properly secured and mine have even opened the latches on gates.
I have tasted goat meat and have to admit I found it delicious — but I would never tell my goats that.
We have a couple of dogs too but I think goats are definitely easier to have as pets. Dogs are needier, plus you have to take them out for walks. Of course, you can walk goats if you want to do so, but you don’t need to it — and let’s face it, you don’t see many people walking goats down the street.
Goats can have a reputation for being bad-tempered but if you handle them from a young age then they’re no trouble at all. We do recommend neutered males for pets, though, as they don’t come into heat — females come into heat every three weeks.
Anyone can keep goats and it’s better to keep at least two, so they have company. You would need to have an area where they can run around and a good indoor space, so they have room to move about in bad weather. If you want to keep them in the house you can — it’s possible to house-train goats — but I reckon keeping them outside is best.”
‘Pygmies are so full of character and each one has a different personality’
Gemma Barber is a nanny and lives in Ballynahinch with her husband Chris. She says:
At the minute we have 15 goats — we started off with just two a couple of years ago. I used to be terrified of any animals other than chickens and dogs. Then, in August 2014, my husband rang me from Lisburn to tell me that he had just bought two pygmy goats.
Naturally I panicked at that news — I was petrified at the idea of goats and didn’t know where we were going to put them.
Chris brought the goats home — one was a baby and the other the mother. I was petrified of the mother but I loved the baby. Then, in time, I got used to the mother and loved her, too, and our collection of goats has really taken off from there. We even moved house to a cottage in the country with land around it, so they would have enough space.
Now I breed and show the pygmy goats and we’ve started up the Northern Ireland Pygmy Goat Club. Pygmy goats are certainly becoming more popular here. A couple of years ago there would have been about 15 at a show but now there are around 70.
Three years ago I wouldn’t have believed you if you had told me I would have goats. Yet I have found them to be wonderfully warm animals and such great fun to watch.
Admittedly while we allow our dogs into the house, we couldn’t keep our goats indoors with us, but I’d still be hard-pressed to choose dogs or cats over the other.
Goats are very intelligent and mine always know exactly what time it is. They know if it’s breakfast or dinner time and will be standing waiting for their food.
Pygmy goats aren’t bred for their meat which is a good thing. I know some other goats are bred for meat and that’s fine, I wouldn’t be able to eat goat though, that’s a bit too close to home for me.
Goats are so full of character and each one of them has a different personality. They’re very playful and I’ve never come across an aggressive pygmy male although the female can be a bit more boisterous.
Pygmy goats are at least 16 inches tall and should be no bigger than 22 inches for a male and 21 inches for a female.
I’ve never been tempted to get full-sized goats — I find the pygmies much cuter and think they have more character.
Having the goats has really put me at ease with animals. Now, I have two Shetland ponies and we’ve had pigs, too. And our goats don’t need a lot of maintenance — they get fed twice a day and I only bathe them if I’m going to show them.”