Bovine psychology: Cows experience rich emotional and cognitive lives

Domestic cows are kept worldwide for their meat and dairy products, as well as for several other purposes. As such, products from cows are ubiquitous, and our lives would be very different without them. Depending on whether cows are bred for dairy or meat, their husbandry conditions may vary from intense indoor to extensive outdoor settings – settings to which they have to adapt to and cope with. However, in public perception many people do not have much regard for their cognitive capacities, and they are often (mis)perceived as being rather dumb and simple-minded. In real life, cows experience complex and multifaceted emotional and cognitive lives, as a new review summarizes.

Cows are also very social animals who value the company of conspecifics immensely. Heifers benefit from the presence of experienced companions when learning how to graze more efficiently and also know each other on an individual basis: Calves have been shown to recognize familiar conspecifics in photographs, indicating that the images were treated as mental representations of real individuals. Cows, like humans, can also have quite a character. They are good learners and can recall learned information for up to a year. They also experience something very similar to the ‘Eureka’ effect that we ourselves experience when we suddenly find the solution for a problem. When heifers made improvements in a puzzle task, their heart rate increased and their motivation to access the reward was higher compared to a control group in which individuals received a reward without solving a puzzle. That means that cows, just like us, become more excited when they can exercise agency, such as when controlling the delivery of a treat rather than passively receiving it for free.

Given that we often attribute less mental and emotional capacities to farm animals than they actually have, it’s no wonder we sometimes cannot correctly identify their needs and motivations. For example, dairy cows are often housed in indoor housing systems that are designed to satisfy biological needs for food and shelter. However, recent work has shown that access to pasture is of equally high value to cows as access to fresh feed - demonstrating that cows are highly motivated for outdoor access.

The review article summarizes this and other evidence on cows’ cognitive, emotional and social lives – findings that are of great importance to better adapt husbandry and management conditions to meet cows’ needs. The review article is not paywalled and can be accessed here. It is also accompanied with commentaries from other researchers, ranging from questions on cow personhood to how to take these findings back to the barn.