Intelligence of Cows


According to extensive research, and opposed to widely held beliefs, cows are generally very intelligent and socially complex animals. Animal behaviourists have found that cows interact in various and complex ways, developing friendships over time and sometimes holding grudges against other cows who treat them badly.

Bos Primigenius or Cow, in this case the Holstein variety

These gentle giants mourn the deaths of and even separation from those they love, even shedding tears over their loss. The mother-calf bond is particularly strong, and there are countless reports of mother cows who continue to frantically call and search for their babies after the calves have been taken away.

Cattle form deep friendships and strong family bonds. Like humans, when cattle have their preferred partner with them, their stress levels in terms of their heart rates are reduced compared with when they are with a random individual.

“I could dance with you till the cows come home. Better still, I’ll dance with the cows and you come home.”
– Groucho Marx

Research has shown that cows clearly understand cause-and-effect relationships—a sure sign of advanced cognitive abilities. For example, cows can learn how to push a lever to operate a drinking fountain when they’re thirsty or to press a button with their heads to release grain when they’re hungry. Pressing a panel to get food may not seem like such an astonishing bovine act to us now, but it wasn’t long ago when scientists gauged ape smarts by comparable feats.

Researchers have also found that not only can cows figure out problems, they also, like humans, enjoy the intellectual challenge and get excited when they find a solution. Professor Donald Broom from Cambridge University explains that when cows solve problems, “[t]heir brainwaves showed their excitement; their heartbeat went up, and some even jumped into the air. We called it their Eureka moment.”

“As for butter versus margarine, I trust cows more than chemists.”
– Joan Gussow

A herd of cows is very much like a pack of wolves, with alpha animals and complex social dynamics. Each cow can recognize more than 100 members of the herd, and social relationships are very important to them. Cows will consistently choose leaders for their intelligence, inquisitiveness, self-confidence, experience, and good social skills, while bullying, selfishness, size, and strength are not recognized as suitable leadership qualities.

Not too long ago, an academic from a German university discovered (by using Google Earth) that out of 8,510 cows, most tended to face either north or south, giving rise to possible claims that they can sense magnetism.

“A Range Rover – 10.000 miles a day – produces less methane than a cow farting. So something has got to give, cows or cars. It has got to be cars. […] We have got to get rid of the cars. Milk, I can’t do without that; shoes, burgers…”
– Jeremy Clarkson

On a sad note, we are beginning to learn that raising cows in unnatural conditions, such as crowded feedlots, is very stressful to them because it upsets their hierarchy and keeps them locked in a very unnatural, dark and secluded environment for life. University of Saskatchewan researcher Jon Watts notes that cows who are kept in groups of more than 200 on commercial feedlots become stressed and constantly fight for dominance. (Unfortunately, feedlots in America hold thousands of cows at a time.)

By expanding our awareness of animals’ feelings, we are gradually being forced to acknowledge that a new relationship to them is needed. For instance, lawmakers in the Spanish region of Catalonia have recognized that: in July 2010 they voted to ban bullfighting – if one is a little familiar with Spanish culture, one will understand the magnitude of such a development.

Lastly, some cow-related trivia:

  1. Mountain lions and mountain cows do not live near mountains. The mountain cow is a form of tapir.
  2. As opposed to widely held belief, there are no sacred animals in India. The term Sacred is a Christian one and therefore does not really apply to India – there are no cow deities et cetera.
  3. Cow shoes were wrong by bootleggers during prohibition in the US. The footprints they made looked like cow footprints, and they were worn to trick the police.
  4. Cows move their legs in no particular pattern. Camels walk with their legs in unison.

6 thoughts on “Intelligence of Cows

  1. Absolutely fascinating – everything I ever wanted to know about cows, but was afraid to ask.

    One additional, though unrequested, point: the average cow produces 167 gallons (632.1637 Liters) of methane gas per day.

  2. I spent my summers on a farm from age 11 through age 15 years. Our cows were very intelligent and sometimes liked to play tricks on people. Especially Ben the bull.

  3. I was raised on a homestead in northern Alberta, Canada. There were cows, and bulls, and steers. As a kid one of my jobs was to “shepherd” the herd in the wilderness beyond the farm’s borders, after school and on weekends and of course during vacations. I learned a lot about cow behaviour. My most cogent memory is of how much cows mimicked or emulated human behaviour among themselves. Their social organization when in the wilds was incredibly human. The same struggle for control, or the need for protection from, or with, the bully – and there’s always a bully who becomes the leader and decides who gets to use the “trail” through a field or copses. Nastiness in treatment of each other. Stupidity in over-eating and indulging to the point of death. Mob fear leading to sudden stampedes over a wasp’s nest or the appearance of a bear. Highly protective of one’s young and vicious in attacking another’s young getting too close. Endless games and attempts to elude the shepherd and hide in gullies, remaining motionless while I’d wander around trying to figure out where they were hiding. But cows never learned, or tried to better themselves: they left that to the farmer. Just like people and their gods. Yes cows are just as smart as people. Question I had was, who learned it from whom? I used to think that eating cow was my not-so-subtle revenge, but it dawned on me that eating cow was a lot like eating human. I became a complete vegetarian. At least in the garden, the vegetables seemed to appreciate being weeded. Plus, they didn’t stampede when bugs landed on them. I like onions.

  4. My most cogent memory is of how much cows mimicked or emulated human behaviour among themselves.

    I know what you mean —

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