The Social Importance Of Cow Licks
Research on the social structures and needs of dairy cows is important both from a welfare perspective and from an animal rights perspective. On the one hand, understanding dairy cows’ social needs can lead to a more accurate picture of the ideal living environments that foster social cohesion and well-being. On the other, the very fact that dairy cows form strong social bonds and have inner emotional lives should make anyone think twice about the morality of putting them through an exploitative system that takes their milk for human consumption. This study gathers observational behavior specifically about social licking interactions between dairy cows.
A total of 148 dairy cows across six commercial dairy herds in Brazil were observed for positive, neutral, or negative (“agonistic”) behavior towards one another. The herds were kept in similar conditions and no cows were added to or removed from the herd for at least thirty days prior to the start of the study. Each herd was observed for a total of six days while in the pasture during the hours of 8:00am and 3:00pm, leading to a total of 42 hours of observation per herd. The cows were observed in terms of behavior, in particular social licking and agonistic behavior, as well as in terms of which other cow they stayed physically closest to most of the time (their “preferential mate”). The researchers also observed which cows were most dominant and which were most subordinate, by looking at who initiated agonistic behavior and how it was received.
By the end of the study, social licking behavior was observed in nearly all (94.4%) of the 148 cows in the study. When looking for patterns in licking behavior, the researchers did not find an overall association between the social status of a cow and the number of licks given by that cow. However, they did find that subordinate cows received 2.13 fewer licks on average compared to dominant cows. Similarly, while an association was not found between pregnancy status and giving licks, pregnant cows were found to receive 1.63 more licks on average compared to non-pregnant cows. Furthermore, older cows who had gone through multiple pregnancies were observed to both give more licks (~4.6 more licks, on average) and to receive more licks (~1.8 more licks, on average) compared to younger cows that had only given birth up to one time.
When looking at social bonds as a factor in social licking, researchers found that cows gave an average of 1.27 more licks to their preferential mates (the single other cow which they spent the most time near) than to others in the herd. At the same time, cows also tended to have more instances of conflict with their preferential mates, displaying agonistic behavior an average of 0.45 more times towards their preferential mates than towards others in the herd. The researchers note that this increase in agonistic behavior could come from experiencing more conflict over food or space due to their closer proximity. They conclude that preferential mates have more interactions of all types with each other than they do with others.
Previous studies have established that social licking appears to improve cows’ well-being and helps them form emotional bonds with other cows in their herd. Analogously to human friendships, cows appear to choose specific individuals as their preferred companions with which to spend most of their time. A 2013 study even showed physiological rewards of close bonds between particular cows, specifically a lower heart rate (meaning lower stress) in cows that were housed with their preferred companions. This study adds to the literature on dairy cow behavior and contributes to the theory that social licking supports social cohesion and well-being within herds. It also supports the idea that social licking is one of the ways that cows form special bonds with their preferred companions. Creating living and grazing environments that foster these “friendships” could therefore lead to a happier herd.
The researchers suggest that further studies could look more closely at how cows use body language to request licks from other cows – a behavior which was observed often among the cows in this study – and explore this behavior’s possible motivations. They also suggest that future studies can examine the social and emotional effects on herds when calves are separated from their mothers. Advocates within the research community can go one step further by conducting research on the social and emotional effects of other standard dairy industry practices that can disrupt a herd, such as slaughtering dairy cows once their milk production slows down and funneling male calves into the meat industry (often as veal). Advocates in other fields can help by spreading the findings of this study to raise awareness about the social and emotional lives of cows. This information can be useful for informing animal welfare policies for dairy cows. At the same time, educating the public about the scientifically-studied social and emotional lives of cows can bolster the animal rights argument for fighting against the practice of exploiting cows for milk in the first place.