How Smart Are Cattle?

By Amy M. Armstrong

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The once widely held notion that cattle are not capable of highly developed cognitive activity is being challenged by recent research from animal behavior scientists. Formerly relegated to being merely beasts producing meat or milk as they mindlessly chew their cuds, cattle are now being recognized as able to interact with each other in complex social patterns and discover solutions to problems.

Can Problem Solve

Animal researchers are providing scientific proof that cattle are able to solve problems. Applied Animal Behavior Science reports on a Cambridge University study in which Holstein-Friesian dairy heifers ages 7 to 12 months were divided into two observation groups. The first group had to press a panel with their noses to open a gate that led to food. The second group did not have to press the panel; the gate was controlled automatically and opened without their pressing. The heart rates of individuals in each group was measured. The heart rates of the "pressing" group increased when they were successful in opening the gate. In its analysis of the experiment and its results, Psychology Today observed that this study suggests that "cows and probably other animals" can have "eureka" moments, giving them pleasure in learning.

Social Order

As explained at Grit, cows understand and adhere to a social pecking order within their herd. This includes lining up one by one at the feed bunker for both beef and dairy cattle. In the case of dairy cows being rounded up at milking time, this adherence to a social order includes which cow routinely goes first, second, third and even last.

Hold Grudges

As reported by The Sunday Times and reprinted in several news outlets including Free Republic, a 2005 study of dairy cow behavior at England's Bristol University concluded that cows are capable of feeling strong emotions, including the ability to hold a grudge against another cow that may have done her wrong in the past. The studied monitored a herd of cows documenting which cows spent time together within the herd and which ones did not. After observing the behavior of individual cows within the herd, researchers discovered that certain cows would "hang out" together throughout their daily activities, and that the cows within each of these bovine clicks tended to avoid other cows.

Seeking Escape

The Daily Mail Online featured a report on Daisy, a heifer living in Northern Ireland, who figured out how to open a metal gate with her tongue so she and her herd mates could leave the barn and munch on grass in the pasture instead. Her farmer suspected rustlers were to blame for the cows he kept finding outside. He set up a video camera and caught Daisy's ability on film.

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Author

Amy M. Armstrong is a former community news journalist with more than 15 years of experience writing features and covering school districts. She has received more than 40 awards for excellence in journalism and photography. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Washington State University. Armstrong grew up on a dairy farm in western Washington and wrote agricultural news while in college.