One Life: Cows

13 July 2021

Cows are intelligent and emotional animals, and science is uncovering just how complex and sensitive they really are. 

Cows are emotional beings, and we can learn how to read their emotions.

Cows express their emotions in many ways. With a bit of insight, we may be able to talk cow! Cows have very mobile ears, and 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. 

Other signs of emotion may be subtler; tail position indicates mood as does the position of their head which is an important indicator of aggression or submission. A cow rapidly snapping her tail back and forth is likely to be angry and is best not approached. Tail swishing is also performed in response to acute pain and may be directed towards the painful stimulus. Tails are elevated during oestrus display, fighting, threats, greetings, and suckling. Conversely when the tail is held between the legs, this indicates a cow is cold, frightened or fearful.

Cows are good communicators

Cow’s have distinct individual voices and vocalise their emotions. These calls indicate pleasure, frustration, excitement and stress, they are used to regain contact when they become isolated and to express grief and anger. 

Cows and calves who have been separated will call more to one another, and a mother cow will change her call depending on how far away her calf is. Also, when they are stressed, cows change their vocalisations, and researchers can detect changes in their emotions through analysing their calls.

Cows have great memories

Cows recognise other cows and humans that they have an association with, and they have great recall abilities being able to remember and recall past associations and experiences with individuals which will influence their future behaviours. They also have good spatial memory; recalling where resources are located, remembering watering holes, the best grazing spots, and the best places to shelter.

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 also be a good substitute for a gentle person, as cows will queue up to use the giant revolving brushes when they are available.

Cows have friendships

Cows are highly social animals, and when they are given the chance, they will form strong bonds with one another. Bonded cows will lick one another as a form of grooming and bond strengthening. Cows will actively seek individuals out and develop social networks and hierarchies within their herds, with older individuals and individuals that have grown up together performing more social interactions than others.

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, and 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 increased at various sessions 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 like to be happy

Cows seek pleasure and love to play. When let outside after being cooped up for long periods indoors, cows run, prance and jump with joy.

Cows enjoy learning

Cows show excitement and a ‘Eureka’ moment when they successfully learn a task. When they make clear improvements in their learning they have higher heart rates, approach the reward more quickly, and show signs of pleasure and excitement,  responding emotionally to their own learning progress.

Cows learn from each other

Cows watch and learn, quickly learn to keep away from a stimulus that is likely to cause them pain or fear, such as electrical fences. Cows learn from the experience of other cows and once one or two cows have experienced pain due to contact with an electric fence other cows avoid similar contact.

Cows are sensitive beings, and they will support one another in times of stress

Cows experience emotional contagion, how one cow is feeling can affect the rest of the herd. 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 cows are less fearful in new situations, as the individuals can benefit from the social support the stable group offers.

Cows are great mums

Cows are extraordinary mothers and develop very strong relationships with their calves, developing strong maternal bonds. They are attentive, protective and loving parents. The behaviors associated with maternal care are for the most part like those observed in wild ungulates. These behaviors allow the cow to bond with her calf, protect and provide it with nourishment.

Cow’s gestation period is nine months. Before giving birth, cows living within an extensive environment will separate themselves from the rest of the herd and in many cases may hide their calves for several days after giving birth.

When allowed, a mother cow may subsequently nurse her calf for as long as three years. The mother-calf bond continues after weaning with mothers and their calves remaining close to each other for life. 

Cows have their own nurseries

Cows have a maternal community with other cows in the herd helping to nurture their calves, sharing babysitting duties with one or two cows staying with a group of calves while other mums feed and socialise. The cows will rotate this duty so that all the mums take their turn to care for the calves within their herd.

Cows express signs of grief

Cows show signs of grief when separated from each other. A dairy cow’s calf is likely to be removed very early on after birth, the bond between the mother and her calf is very strong and the cows will both search for their stolen calves and call loudly for day’s even weeks after their calves have been taken away from them.

Cows have been known to break through fences, call frantically and walk for miles in search of their babies when they are removed from their side. Mother cows and calves have distinct moos for one another and mothers will continue to call for their babies long after they have been removed from sight.

Cows have individual personalities

Cows like all animals are individuals with their own personalities. Some are intelligent, others less so, some are timid, nervous, others are bolder, some are friendly while others can be aggressive although this is rare, some may be compassionate, others indifferent. 

Cows understand cause & effect

Cows understand the relationship between cause and effect, indicative of advanced cognitive abilities.  Cows used in cause and effect research quickly learn that when they are thirsty, pushing a lever to operate a drinking fountain provides them with water and when they are hungry pressing a button with their heads provides them with food.

Cows can self-medicate

Observations of cows have shown that they know which herbs are medicinal. They seem to understand which herbs to eat whenever they are ill and have been observed to eat plants not normally part of their diet.

Cows really are amazing animals.

Video clip links:

Cows really do enjoy being outside

Cows enjoy being stroked by a kind and familiar person

Cows enjoy automated brushes 

Also see:

Cows are amazing mothers

Give a cow a chance on cow appreciation day 

Dairy cow welfare: There are over 270 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 which is subsequently removed from the mother, to continue producing milk, they are then artificially inseminated within three months of giving birth. This is leading to large amounts of stress, a greater likelihood of illness and premature death for many cows. These high milk producing cows are only productive for an average of 3 years, after which they are sent to slaughter.