Inside The Minds Of Cows
Cows are among the most common and iconic farmed animals, and people use them all over the world for their meat and milk. Unfortunately, our limited exposure to cows in their natural living environment encourages people to assume that they lack intelligence and sensitivity. This article from Animal Behavior and Cognition presents a comprehensive review of research on the intelligence, cognition, and behavior of cows, based on material that researchers collected from the Web of Science Core Collection, ScienceDaily, and Google. The article helps us see that cow psychology mirrors our own psychology in remarkable ways. Ultimately, the authors’ mission is to stress the urgency of changing how we think about and treat cows, and they present their arguments for doing so in a methodical way.
First and foremost, cows have well-developed cognitive and learning abilities. Besides the ability to complete tasks such as pressing a panel to obtain food, they can predict the future movements of a target on a trolley. Also, they can distinguish between different individuals and whether the individuals are cows or humans, which suggests that cows are capable of more complex social interactions. We need additional targeted research to provide a fuller picture of cows’ cognitive capabilities.
Cows also experience a wide range of emotions. Behaviorists believe behavioral and bodily signs—such as vocalizations, escape attempts, the percentage of visible eye whiteness, ear posture, and heart rate—can reflect cows’ positive and negative emotions. Researchers have also observed complex emotions among cows. These include cognitive bias (when emotional states affect judgments and other thought processes), emotional contagion (when an individual’s emotions spread to the rest of the group), social buffering (when an individual’s stress level decreases in the presence of others), and mother-child bonds.
Researchers have observed personality—which we can define as a set of traits that an individual possesses consistently over time—in cows as well. Studies have shown that cows express sociability, gregariousness, nervousness, and fearfulness; as well as sensitivity to milking, unfamiliar objects, and social isolation. Regrettably, far more research has explored cows’ negative personality traits than their positive traits because the negative traits impact farming production in undesirable ways. We need additional research on cows’ positive personality traits to understand the full range of cow personalities.
Given cows’ cognitive and emotional capacities, it should be no surprise that they also display elements of social complexity. Cows tend to form a matrilineal social structure consisting of mother-child units. Cows form larger social networks based on factors like shared traits and time spent together in calfhood. Individuals also exchange knowledge through social interactions. These characteristics strongly suggest that cows are much more complex individuals than meat, dairy, and fashion industries would want us to think.
Though the aim of this article was to summarize what we already know about cow psychology, it also highlights the areas needing additional research. And while the article focuses on cows, the article has ramifications for all farmed animals: it reminds advocates that the small number of studies exploring these animals’ cognitive capabilities aim mostly to maximize agricultural production. We could learn so much more and make greater strides in improving farmed animal welfare if we expand this research agenda. In the meantime, growing evidence of cows’—and other farm animals’—cognitive capabilities should motivate us to keep a much closer eye on how humans care for these intelligent animals, not only on farms, but in any captive setting.