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Study: Cows Communicate Their Emotions

Updated: Nov 22, 2022

Euan Cook reports on the University of Sydney’s study about how cows can communicate complex emotions and the importance of farmers respecting their livestock.

Photo by Morten Hornum

Humans have often felt detached from understanding and accepting the complex emotions and intelligence between our pets and “food” animals. However, a recent study from the University of Sydney records the “first evidence of cows maintaining individual vocalization” where cows are empirically proven to alter vocal pitches according to their emotions.

“Cows are gregarious, social animals. In one sense it isn’t surprising they assert their individual identity throughout their life.” (Alexandra Green, Power of Positivity).

Domesticated for human use since the early Neolithic period since 10,500 BC, semiferal cows have undergone between 80 and 200 generations of mostly natural selection following their introduction to the Americas in the late 1400s. Now, cows are the most common type of domesticated ungulates, being raised for meat and dairy products along with their role as draft animals for labour.

The Physiology and Psychology of Cows

Mostly considered as a passive agent in the meat industry, it is often overlooked that cows rely upon all five sensory modalities. As a prey animal, they have a wide field of view of at least 330 degrees and their hearing ranges from 23 Hz to 35 kHz. Moreover, cows have a well-developed gustatory sense and can distinguish the four primary tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. Cows’ macrosmatic nature mean they have a keen sense of smell, along with being incredibly sensitive to touch. Although they are sensitive to pain, cows sometimes suppress signs of pains to evade predators. Ultimately, they feel emotion.

The three areas that define emotional experience in cows are the following: 1) emotional reactions to learning, 2) cognitive bias, 3) emotional contagion and social buffering.

  • Emotional Reactions to Learning

The first of these factors refer to the emotional effects of improving on a task separable from reactions to a reward itself. A cow, for example, may become excited because he or she can control the delivery of a reward, demonstrating some level of self-awareness such as self-referral or self-agency.

  • Cognitive Bias

Secondly, cognitive bias, or the effects of negative or positive emotions on judgements, has been observed before and after cows are separated from their mothers. Before separation, cows responded to positive stimuli 72% of the time. However, after separation, this response dropped to 62%, highlighting that when cows are distressed, they exhibit a relatively more negative response bias towards ambiguous stimuli.

  • Emotional Contagion and Social Buffering

Thirdly, emotional contagion is the oldest level of empathy, allowing cows to imagine the capacity for empathy with the ability to share or match emotional experiences at some level. Furthermore, social buffering refers to the idea that social animals react less intensively to negative stresses when they are in the presence of conspecifics. Therefore, the mere presence of unstressed conspecifics is calming and social animals, likewise, find is extremely stressful to be socially isolated.

Vocal individuality of Holstein-Friesian Cattle

In 2019, Professor Alexandra Green studied a herd of 18 Holstein-Freisan heifers and progressively collected 333 samples of cow vocalisation which are encoded with an individual identity. According to her research, an alteration of the pitch of cow’s moos can express a wide range of emotions from distress, excitement, and arousal.

Within a herd, demonstrating individuality in high-frequency calls would be biologically advantageous by helping to receiving support from other cows. Green and her colleagues measured over 20 vocal features of moos, including pitch, duration, amplitude and vocal “roughness”.

Vocalisations are produced by two independent processes: sound generated by vibrations in the vocal folds and sound filtered by the vocal tract. Using 170 putatively positive calls, Green produced eight significant discriminant functions, which were used to identify 78.2% of the calls to the correct heifer. Ultimately, high frequency cattle calls were assigned to the correct individual at least 60% of the time within the same emotional valence and least 49% across all emotional valences.

Confronting the Food Industry

Ultimately, all through their lives, cows keep their individual moos, even if they’re talking to themselves. Cows even take turns in conversations, which is beneficial in the animal kingdom to communicate needs such as the location of food sources or incoming threats.

With this knowledge, along with the multiple scientific studies discovering how cows emote more and more like humans, the question of their role in the food chain becomes more pressing. An increase of cattle farming has attempted to accommodate a rising global population, but with a rise in consumer consciousness and the highly gregarious nature of cows, we as a society should promote more ethical cattle rearing to help farmers, and the general public, understand animals better.

“Anecdotally, farmers claim to know a lot of information about their cattle based on their voice,” Alexandra Green says. “I’d love to scientifically prove this through psychoacoustic experiments, such as playing cow sounds to farmers and seeing what they can identify, such as individual animals or stressed animals” (Alexandra Green, Psychology Today).

Despite slaughterhouses being strongly advised to maintain humane and painless practices when processing cattle, cows raised for factory farms undoubtedly experience distressful and unnatural conditions that no animal should be subject to. Livestock farming contributes to 14% of greenhouse emissions globally, particularly methane and carbon dioxide, which makes the ethical restructuring of the practice on a national scale that much more urgent


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