Cows are truly amazing and extremely interesting beings. Often thought of as simply steak, burgers, beef, veal, leather, and global dairy producers, numerous people see them only as food items or products, rather than as highly sentient and intelligent individuals with markedly different personalities. They are as diverse as cats, dogs, and humans: Some are very quick learners, while others are a little slower. Some are bold and adventurous, while others are shy and timid. Some are friendly and considerate, while others are bossy and devious.
According to research, cows are generally quite intelligent animals who can remember things for a long time. Animal behaviorists have found that they interact in socially complex ways, developing friendships over time and sometimes holding grudges against other cows who treat them badly.
These gentle giants mourn the deaths of and even separation from those they love, sometimes shedding tears over their loss. The mother/calf bond is particularly strong, and there are countless reports of mother cows who continue to call and search frantically for their babies after the calves have been taken away and sold to veal or beef farms.
Marino and Kristin Allen called “The Psychology of Cows” goes along way toward dispelling countless myths about who these bright and emotional bovines truly are.
We hope this research will become required reading not only for people interested in cognitive ethology (the comparative study of animal minds and what’s in them), but also for people who work in the food-industrial complex, those who consume cows under other names, and everyone who works with cows in any capacity at all.
The authors begin by correctly noting, “… when cow behavior is addressed, it is almost entirely done within the framework of and applied to their use as food commodities. Therefore, there is relatively little attention to the study of cow intelligence, personality, and sociality at a basic comparative level.”
Cows are typically recognized for their ubiquity as various sorts of products, who value is cashed out in terms of their instrumental value—namely, what they can do for us. Their inherent value as living sentient beings with distinct personalities often is glossed or totally ignored.
However, even people who work in the food-industrial complex or who are responsible for developing humane welfare guidelines (that all too frequently are ignored), know that cows are sentient beings and that they suffer and feel pain. Otherwise, they wouldn’t even bother to develop regulations that supposedly protect the animals.
Here is a general summary of some of their findings from Marino and Allen’s detailed analyses of available literature found in books, book chapters, dissertations and theses, and empirical and review papers in peer-reviewed professional journals. The reference of “The Psychology of Cows” section is extremely comprehensive and taken as a whole, Marino and Allen’s essay will set the standard for years to come.
Learning and Cognition, Emotions, Personality, and Social Complexity
Marino and Allen separated their findings into four broad categories, namely, Learning and Cognition, Emotions, Personality, and Social Complexity. Of course, there is overlap among these topics, but this delineation serves to highlight what we know in each.
Learning and Cognition: In this section, we learn that cows display the ability to rapidly learn different tasks, display long-term memory, extrapolate the location of a hidden moving object, discriminate complex stimuli, and discriminate humans from one another. The authors note that calves as well as adult cows show learned fear responses to humans who have previously handled them in a rough manner. Cows also display complex spatial memory and are able to discriminate among individual cows and recognize cow faces as different from the faces of other species.
Emotions: A good deal of research has been done on the emotional lives of cows and we know that they experience a wide range of emotions. For example, they display fear and anxiety and the less eye white that is seen, the better they feel. When cow mothers are separated from their calves, as is done as they are being prepared for meals, there is an increase in the amount of eye white.
Ears also are indicators of a cow’s emotional state. Relaxed ear postures indicate cows are feeling okay. Cows also like to play, as do countless other nonhuman animals. Also, one very important discovery is that when cows are stressed, such as after they’re branded with a hot iron, they show a decrease in the ability to judge ambiguous stimuli, as do humans. Marino and Allen also report that cows display emotional contagion. A series of studies on a form of emotional contagion mediated by olfactory cues has shown that when cows are exposed to stressed conspecifics they too show pronounced stress responses, such as decreased feeding and increased cortisol release.
I often stress that cows and other so-called “food animals” not only see family members, friends, and others being killed for food; they also smell and hear what’s happening. It’s also known that the presence of other cows can buffer the stress that cows feel on their way to market. This is called “social buffering” and has been demonstrated in other nonhumans. Mothers and calves also show extreme distress when separated. This is not at all surprising but remains a common practice in the animal-food industry.
Personality: Cows, similar to numerous other nonhumans, display a full range of personalities including boldness, shyness, sociability, gregariousness, and being temperamental. Of course, these are not surprising results, and people working with and studying cows have known this for a long time.
Social Complexity: Concerning this topic, Marino and Allen write that the social complexity hypothesis suggests that the challenges encountered in the social environment place selective pressures on brain evolution and that there should be a positive relationship between social complexity and individual intelligence across species. From a practical point of view, they note, “Bergman & Beehner (2015) propose a contemporary definition of social complexity that preserves the central role of cognition: “… social complexity should be measured as the number of differentiated relationships that members of a species have with conspecifics”.
The authors conclude that research on cows clearly shows that given a general definition of social complexity as the number of differentiated relationships, the knowledge about conspecifics, and the knowledge of one’s own and other animals’ social interactions and relationships, cows display broad parameters of social complexity in empirical studies. They have demonstrated knowledge about conspecifics and the exchange of relevant social knowledge with conspecifics. Through dominance hierarchies and affiliative bonds, they have demonstrated knowledge about conspecifics and of their own social interactions with them.
Despite empirical evidence for complex emotional, social, and cognitive functioning, there is still a gap between our understanding and acceptance of complex emotions and intelligence between our pets (namely, dogs and cats) and farmed or ‘food’ animals (Marino & Allen, 2017).
It’s essential to use what we know on behalf of other animals with whom we interact, use, and abuse. Unfortunately, a “knowledge translation gap” still exists and what we know is not used on their behalf in far too many situations. Basically, the knowledge translation gap refers to the practice of ignoring tons of science showing that other animals are sentient beings and going ahead and causing intentional harm in human-oriented arenas. On the broad scale, it means that what we now know about animal cognition and emotion has not yet been translated into an evolution in human attitudes and practices.
As we wrote above, we hope “The Psychology of Cows” becomes required reading for everyone who works with cows in all of the venues in which cows and humans interact. Cows are routinely dissed and detailed scientific research shows that they do not deserve to be treated as unfeeling objects. I fully know that some people will quibble that cows are indeed respected for who they are, but that we have to use them as we do and they’re doing the best they can to give them a “better life.” It’s worth bearing in mind as I’ve written above that a “better life” is not necessarily a “good life,” so feel good excuses and rationalizations don’t really help these bright and sentient bovines or other so-called “food animals.”
While people can quibble about the details of this or that research, they can’t quibble about whether or not cows and other animals suffer and feel pain when they’re abused, as they are on their way to human mouths.
Marino, L., & Allen, K. (2017). The psychology of cows. Animal Behavior and Cognition, 4(4), 474-498.
Bergman, T. J., & Beehner, J. C. (2015). Measuring social complexity. Animal Behaviour, 103, 203-209.