Goats can tell the difference between our human facial expressions - and they would rather interact with happy, smiling people, a new study suggests.

For people who own and love goats, this probably isn't a huge surprise, but it's the first scientific evidence of how goats read human emotional expressions, demonstrating that it's not just better known companion animals such as horses and dogs that can read our faces.

The work builds on previous research that found goats can be as 'loving and smart as dogs', and it's just further validation that they're delightful wholesome creatures that we probably don't deserve to have in our lives.

"The study has important implications for how we interact with livestock and other species, because the abilities of animals to perceive human emotions might be widespread and not just limited to pets," says senior author Alan McElligott now at the University of Roehampton, but who conducted the research at Queen Mary University of London.

1 goatspreferhAlan McElligott with one of the goats (Alan McElligott)

To test how perceptive goats really are, McElligott and his team took 20 goats from Buttercups Sanctuary for Goats in Kent and showed them pairs of images of human faces in grey-scale.

The two images were of the same person - someone the goats hadn't met before. One showed the person with a positive, happy face, and the other with a negative, angry face.

The team found that the goats interacted more with the happy face pictures, looking at them and even going up to them and exploring the image with their little snouts.

"We already knew that goats are very attuned to human body language, but we did not know how they react to different human emotional expressions, such as anger and happiness," said first author, Christian Nawroth.

"Here, we show for the first time that goats do not only distinguish between these expressions, but they also prefer to interact with happy ones."

Interestingly, their preference for happy faces was most obvious when the positive images were put on the right side of the test area.

The researchers say this suggests the goats use the left hemisphere of their brains to process positive emotions - although more work will need to be done to investigate that hypothesis.

While the sample size of this study is small, it's compelling first evidence into how goats process not only human emotions, but also those of other animals.

"The study of emotion perception has already shown very complex abilities in dogs and horses," said one of the researchers, Natalia Albuquerque, from the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil.

"However, to date, there was no evidence that animals such as goats were capable of reading human facial expressions. Our results open new paths to understanding the emotional lives of all domestic animals."

The research has been published in the open-access journal Royal Society Open Science.