• Becci Pigeon

Cows are amazing!

Updated: Jan 20

Some people might not think of cows as very complex animals, but—as often happens when it comes to our perception of non-human animals—they’d be wrong. Cows are fascinating once you take the time to learn.  A few facts:

  • Cows are very intelligent. In a study conducted at the University of Sydney, cows demonstrated heightened executive function and decision-making abilities as they were trained to follow sound through a maze in order to find food. Dr. Daniel Weary, a zoologist and professor in the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia, was not surprised: ‘These are highly developed mammals that have been solving problems for a long, long time…If anything, it reflects poorly on us that we’re surprised that these animals are smart. Of course these animals are smart.’[1] Cows even appear to experience what we call the ‘eureka moment’–the rush of excitement we feel upon solving a problem–with an elevated heart rate and behaviour such as jumping, bucking, and kicking.[2]

  • Studies show that cows feel more relaxed when around their best friends. Cows are extremely social animals, but they’re also individuals with their own personalities, so some get along…and others don’t.  It makes sense, then, that they have best friends with whom they prefer to socialise, and they feel stress when separated. While this is no surprise to people who spend time around cows, Krista McLennan of Northampton University decided to test the idea scientifically, by measuring the heart rates of cows who were partnered, for thirty minutes, with a good friend and then with an unknown cow.  The cows’ heart rates were lower and they experienced less stress when with their friends.[3]

  • Cows have distinct, individual voices that they maintain throughout their lives, and they talk to each other about how they feel.

  • Cows are emotionally sensitive. When presented with an ambiguous situation, anxious or depressed humans tend to interpret it in a negative way; humans in a calmer, more positive state of mind are more likely to consider it neutrally.  With this information in mind, Dr. Daniel Weary at the University of British Columbia decided to study how dairy calves responded to two major stressors: first, separation from their mothers (in the UK, as in many countries, most dairy calves are taken permanently from their mothers within hours or days of birth) and secondly, disbudding, a standard industry practice which uses a hot iron to burn off the emerging horn bud and prevent horns from forming. He found that calves who had experienced both separation and disbudding responded to cognitive tests in the same manner as anxious, depressed humans.[4] Calves aren’t the only ones to experience distress at separation from their mothers; female cows, who are famously devoted to their young, become very upset when their calves are taken, sometimes bellowing for them for days.[5]

  • Cows have an average lifespan of 16 to 22 years. In the UK, cows raised for meat are sent to slaughter at between one and two years old; dairy cows, at about 6 ½.

  • Cows have good memories and can discriminate between the faces of the individuals around them, cow or human. (They also avoid humans who were unkind to them in the past.)[6]

  • Much like us, cows are subject to ’emotional contagion’–when others humans show signs of alarm or fear (especially under ambiguous circumstances) we begin to feel frightened and tense as well. The same goes for cows, who react to increased stress in fellow cows with ‘pronounced stress responses’ like decreased feeding and increased cortisol release. This, of course, means that cows raised for dairy or meat recognise the terror of their friends, family and others when they are killed for food.[7]

  • One of the major ways cows express emotion is via the position of their ears![8] We can also judge their emotional states by the temperature of their noses. A cooler nose means a more relaxed cow![9] 

Here’s a video with some happy cows whose noses must be very cool: 

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