Cows are intelligent, and emotional beings, and science is uncovering just how complex and sensitive these animals are.
Cows are emotional beings, and we can learn how to read their emotions.
Researchers have found that cows express their emotions in a number of ways. With a bit of insight, we may be able to talk cow! Cows have very mobile ears, and studies have shown that they will perform certain ear postures for longer when they are excited (upright posture), frustrated (forwards ear posture) or relaxed (floppy or backwards ear postures). You can also tell how a cow is feeling from their eyes, as cows who are relaxed will show less eye white, than those who are excited or frustrated.
Cows will also vocalise their emotions. Cows and calves who have been separated will call more to one another, and a mother cow will change her call depending on how close her calf is from her. Also, when they are stressed, cows change their vocalisations, and researchers can detect changes in their emotions through analysing their calls.
Cows enjoy a gentle touch
Cows enjoy being stroked or brushed by a familiar human. Not only is it pleasurable for them, but it is also calming. It can help to reduce their heart rate and stress levels when they are undergoing veterinary procedures. Automatic brushes can be a good substitute for a gentle person, as cows will queue up to use the giant revolving brushes when they are available.
Cows are highly social animals, and when they are given the chance, they will form strong bonds with one another. Bonded cows will also lick one another as a form of grooming. Cows will actively seek this out.
Cows want to be outside
Millions of cows around the world live the majority of their lives indoors. Life inside a shed is far removed from the image we have of cows out on pasture, enjoying space to roam, and fresh grass to eat. Cows have evolved to live outdoors, and they are healthier out on pasture. More importantly, when researchers have asked cows, they have found that they are highly motivated to be outside. Researchers at the University of British Columbia trained cows to push a gate open to access fresh feed following milking. The weight of the gate was then increased at each session until the cows would no longer push it. They then did the same again, but instead of accessing the fresh feed, the gate led to pasture. The majority of the cows pushed as hard, or even harder to get to the pasture, as they did for the fresh feed. It was not just hunger driving the cows to pasture, as they already had access to fresh feed in the barn. The cows were showing a strong desire to access pasture, and they were willing to work for it. The cows would push even harder at night, which shows that access to pasture at night is even more important to cows.
Cows enjoy learning
Researchers at England’s University of Cambridge found evidence of a ‘Eureka’ moment in cows when they successfully learned a task. Over two studies, they found that when the cows made clear improvements in their learning they had higher heart rates, approached the reward more quickly, and showed other signs of pleasure and excitement, compared with cows in a control group. The cows were thought to be responding emotionally to their own learning progress and were excited about their improvements.
Cows are sensitive beings, and they will support one another in times of stress
Cows are capable of emotional contagion, which means that how one cow is feeling can affect the rest of the herd. For example, paired cows will pick up on a partner’s feelings of fear or stress, and they will show signs of fear and stress themselves, even though they have not been exposed to anything to cause this.
When stressed, cows will seek out other non-stressed cows, and will even choose social contact over food following a period of restraint. Spending time in stable groups also means that cattle are less fearful in new situations, as the individuals can benefit from the social support the stable group offers.
Cows really are amazing animals
Dairy cow welfare
There are over 264 million cows producing milk across the world. Dairy cows are bred specifically to produce large quantities of milk. They are required to give birth to one calf per year, and the calf is often removed from the mother within hours. The cow is then artificially inseminated within three months of giving birth, so that the cycle can continue. This leads to large amounts of stress, in both the calf and the mother, and a greater likelihood of illness and premature death for many cows and calves. These high producing cows are often only considered to be productive for an average of 3 years, after which they are sent to slaughter.