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Inner Lives: Sentient Bessie

Learn how cows express their emotions

All Animals magazine, November/December 2015

By Jonathan Balcombe

Photo by Peder777/iStockphoto

Did that cow just roll her eyes? Maybe. A new study suggests that cows display subtle behaviors that express their emotions. The expression of preferences and feelings in animals is difficult to see, but careful observations help reveal patterns in their behavior.

According to researchers, the amount of white showing in cows’ eyes indicates stress and frustration. It’s also a measure of pain. A 2014 Canadian study found that calves who are separated from their mothers or dehorned approached new objects with more reluctance than other calves.

Another study found that low ear position and cool nasal temperatures are signs that a cow is in a positive emotional state. British ethologists stroked cows’ necks and observed their physical reactions, which seemed to indicate more relaxation.

And what about joy? A Cambridge University study found that young heifers have “eureka moments,” getting excited upon discovering they can open a gate themselves by pressing a button with their noses, but not if the gate opens randomly.

It’s not just intellectual or physical stimuli that bring cows comfort. Researchers observed that grazing cows often opt to stand near others with whom they are most familiar.

However, many dairy farmers choose to separate cows according to productivity and reproductive state.

The study suggests that herders may benefit more from allowing cow cliques to remain together.

Jonathan Balcombe is director of animal sentience for the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy.

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