Animal Sentience: Cows

This afternoon, driving by pastures I regularly walk or drive past, I observed something unexpected, and intriguing.

Rounding a tight curve in the gravel road, I saw one of the yearlings in the adjacent pasture running – full speed, for quite a distance – in the same direction I was traveling. My first thought was my car had somehow spooked it and it was running for mama. It did seem to run toward several older cattle, but none of them were moving or distressed in any way and instead were standing calmly near a wooden hay feeder set on a hill among some tall Ponderosa pines. Cattle are used to vehicles driving by, I thought, so me coming around the bend shouldn’t have caused alarm. It was odd.

As I approached the end of the road where it T’s into another, I saw a vehicle approaching from the left: the pickup of the owner of the pasture. Jim doesn’t live on site, but comes by every day with his two dogs to feed and care for his cattle. I see him regularly and often stop to chat. His family has been in the valley for a long time and his brother Stan, who died a couple years ago, was a friend.

Seeing Jim’s pickup I had an aha! moment: the yearling, like any dog, recognized the sound of its caretaker’s vehicle approaching and was running toward the hay feeder, a Pavlov’s response to the distinct sound of the truck’s engine. Food!

man and dog in pasture
Jim and his dog border collie Chase on the pasture’s hill in 2018.

Indeed, when I returned an hour later from my errand, Jim and his dogs were on that hillside, feeding the cattle.

That bit of empirical knowledge is now added to my other observations of cattle over the years, especially those in the pastures alongside the roads my dogs and I frequently walk and run. It’s clear, to me at least, that cows have rich inner lives. To deny they are sentient beings with distinct personalities seems silly.

dogs on road, cattle in pasture
Most of a new herd of cattle standing in a corner of the pasture this morning as my dogs and I stroll by.

This morning my dogs and I walked along a road lined by several distinct pastures. Two days ago I noticed a new herd of cattle had been moved onto one particular pasture, most of them huddled tightly into a corner as if wanting out or confused about where they were. Based on observation, I figured they’d been moved there temporarily and would soon be moved again to a neighboring pasture with pens and chutes where they would be loaded on cattle trucks transporting them to slaughter or to warmer winter pastures. It’s a noisy and stressful (for the cattle) process I’ve been watching play out with several herds over the past few weeks. So I was a bit surprised this morning when those same cattle seen a couple days ago were bunched into the opposite corner of the pasture, right where the boys and I would be walking. Were they about to be herded across the road to the pens and chutes that would allow them to be loaded onto a truck? I didn’t see any trucks, and it’s Sunday, an unlikely day for loading. Continuing our walk, the cattle watched us pass with interest, mooing occasionally but not startled by us. By the time we came back that way they had begun dispersing along the fence line to another corner of the pasture. I had the sense they had questions that needed answering, about where they were and why, but I couldn’t help them.

I need an interpreter! Not sure what they’re asking…

Before sharing citations to the research and writings of others on this topic of cow personalities, cow sentience, let me describe of my own observations of the (mostly) Angus cattle pastured nearby:

  • Most cattle are extremely curious and inquisitive: they will see me and my dogs approaching from some distance and move toward the fence to get a closer look as we walk by. They’re very social, seeking interaction.
  • Often those that are inquisitive are also playful: they engage in games of daring and taunting with my dogs, following and chasing us as we move down the road, the safety of the fence between us, running away if the dogs jump toward the fence but quickly returning to taunt the dogs again, clearly enjoying the game, showing no real fear. They have a sense of humor.
  • Other cattle are skittish and easily spooked, wanting nothing to do with us, trotting away before we ever get close. They’re scared and careful.
  • Herds of cattle in a particular pasture seem to be one or the other – inquisitive or skittish. One side of the road can be curious while on the other side, skittish. Since these herds are moved up in summer from lower elevations and moved down again before winter, each herd kept separate from others, I don’t know if their personalities are genetic or learned, but the differences are real and easily observed. I believe the behaviors are learned, passed from mamas to calves.
  • Calves are especially playful, exploring bravery and boundaries, taunting my dogs with short bursts of running and kicking near the fence before retreating to the safety of mama, often two calves engaging in this behavior together, gaining courage from (showing off for?) each other. Mamas watch but don’t seem alarmed.
  • The Brahman bulls, cows and calves I observed briefly for the first time this summer behaved differently from the Angus cattle I’m used to seeing. The bulls were more calm and friendly, actually approaching the pasture gate to engage with me, and the calves were calmly curious, but the mamas – some with big horns! – were far more protective of their calves and cautious, at least with regard to my dogs. I wrote about them earlier here.
Brahman bull
One of the calm, curious and friendly Brahman bulls. If they return next year, now that I know more about their gentle nature I’ll reach out to offer a scratch behind those ears.
Some playful cattle chasing and taunting the boys last summer. Toward the end of the video you see how on one side of the road the cattle are curious about the boys, while on the other, they run away. Different herds, different behaviors.

In an article for Psychology Today titled Cows: Science Shows They’re Bright and Emotional Individuals, animal behaviorist Marc Beckoff, PhD, summarizes the findings of a detailed research paper by Lori Marino and Kristin Allen, published in 2017 in the journal Animal Behavior and Cognition. Some takeaways, quoting from Beckoff’s article:

  • Personality: Cows, similar to numerous other nonhumans, display a full range of personalities including boldness, shyness, sociability, gregariousness, and being temperamental.
  • 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, “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. 
  • Marino and Allen write, “Yet, 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 (Herzog, 2010; Joy, 2009).”

If you’re interested in the topic of animal sentience, a good way to learn more across all species is to subscribe by email to Animal Sentience, an interdisciplinary journal collecting peer-reviewed research articles from many disciplines. Warning: such reading will likely change how you view all of the creatures who share this pale blue dot with us. It’s a trying topic, challenging us to consider the contradictions we all struggle with as human beings biologically designed to thrive on meat proteins yet possessed of brains allowing us to ponder the morality and ethics of such practices.

Conall learning that bulls aren’t as playful or skittish as calves and yearlings (April 2018).

Featured image: several curious cattle line a pasture’s fence as my dogs and I pass by.

8 thoughts on “Animal Sentience: Cows”

  1. I try to spend as little time as possible pondering farm animal sentience as possible. There’s a small ranch behind my house. Every spring when they sell off the calves, the cows mournfully low for three days straight. It affects everyone in my house. Carnivorism is a habit I’d like to break, past attempts have failed in time. Meat is seriously ingrained in the culture here, as I’m sure it is where you live.

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    1. Yes, it’s a complicated issue and creates internal conflicts for many of us. Another aspect rarely mentioned: something like 67% of US households have at least one pet. That’s 85 million families, and who knows how many pets (many homes have several). Many of those pets are carnivores – dogs, cats the most obvious. Even pet reptiles are fed animals (mice, crickets, blood worms, etc.). I know a couple with an animal sanctuary who once tried to put all of the dogs on a vegetarian diet. The experiment failed miserably. So even if people stop eating meat, what about all our pets? No easy fixes, but any solution starts with compassion to all living creatures.

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  2. I like cattle very much and I agree. They are sentient and have individual personalities. Your observation of the Brahman bull agrees with mine — I used to watch one in the mountains in California. Every night the summer herd came from the range back to the lake. This boy fairly pranced, nodding his head back and forth in a kind of rhythm. Behind him was a calf and that bull cared for that calf. I started timing my hikes so I could watch him come in with his harem and his son.

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    1. I love the image of the Brahman bull and his harem and son prancing down to the lake. I’m hoping to see the Brahmans bulls again next summer, now that I know they’re gentle giants. I’ll be braver and give him a scratch on the forehead (with a gate between us) 🙂

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