Cow (or “cattle”) Emotion & Cognition
Cows and bulls, also referred to as “cattle,” are known for their iconic spots and large size, but something that is often overlooked is their complex cognitive and emotional capacities. To begin with, cows and bulls have amazing memories. Some are able to navigate complex mazes and retain the memory of the maze configuration for up to 6 weeks. Relatedly, they can use spatial recognition, for about 8-12 hours, to remember where to locate good food and where to avoid bad food. Moreover, they not only recognize humans and can differentiate them from one another other, but they can also learn to avoid humans who have treated them poorly. Essentially, “cattle” can associate good or bad experiences with distinct places and/or people. They have the capacity to remember, and they are aware of their surroundings.
Just like humans, cows and bulls are emotional creatures. They do not like being left alone, even just for small moments of time. Researchers found that many individuals from various species of “cattle” have an increase in vocalizations and an increased heart rate, causing an increase in plasma cortisol concentrations in blood, when they are left in isolation. This indicates that cows and bulls, like humans, can experience distress from loneliness. While humans tend to convey their emotions through facial expressions, “cattle” tend to convey their emotions and moods via their ears and tails. For instance, researchers found that the positions of a cow’s ears can often tell us something about the cow’s mood. Relatedly, like dog tails, “cattle” tails relay behavioral information. For instance, “cattle” hold their tails out in a straight line to signal that they are in a playful mood. They engage in play behavior and use their cognitive and emotional capacities to fit in their social groups – just like other intelligent mammals!
Every cow and bull has a unique personality. For instance, some may be more bold than others, and some may be more temperamental than others. This makes for very interesting social situations. Cows and bulls live in groups and learn from each other, play with each other, and even form bonds and alliances with each other. And when they’re not playing and building relationships with one another, they eat– a lot. In fact, they eat around 100 pounds of food daily! While they typically eat grass and grains, cows can be picky with their food and often enjoy treats, such as fruits and veggies. Cows and bulls are much more similar to humans than many believe!
Cows on Today’s Factory Farms
Every year, more than 29 million “cattle” suffer and die in the meat, dairy, and veal industries. Regardless of whether they are used for their flesh or their milk, they are treated horribly. The lives of “cattle” begin with them being ripped away from their mothers immediately after birth, and it ends with them being violently killed in a slaughterhouse. They all face severe emotional trauma, painful physical mutilations, and eventually death.
For instance, if calves are born with horns, they will usually be burned off with a hot iron, and the babies usually endure this severely painful and distressing procedure (i.e., “dehorning”) without any pain relief. Their horns are very sensitive and filled with blood, so the calves endure significant pain when they are dehorned, and their sinuses are often damaged from this procedure. Moreover, most calves are branded, which usually involves the use of a hot “branding” iron to sear a “marking identification” into the skin. The males are usually castrated, and they often bellow in pain as their scrotums are cut open and their testes are pulled out and cut off. Many suffer painful infections, which usually go untreated, from castration, dehorning, and branding procedures, and many bulls suffer chronic pain from castration.
In order to produce milk, cows must give birth. Consequently, every year, cows are forcibly impregnated, usually through artificial insemination. They are kept in intensive confinement, usually in small “pens,” and never once enjoy the pasture. Many suffer sore hooves and knees and joint issues from standing on concrete floors all day and being denied the opportunity to exercise.
Just like many placental mammals, cows form a strong bond with their offspring. Tragically, though, their babies are quickly ripped away from them , usually within 24 hours of giving birth, which causes great emotional distress to both mother and offspring. For days and weeks after this heartbreaking separation, mother cows can be heard crying out for their babies.
While still grieving the loss of their babies, dairy cows are hooked up to invasive milking machines, for hours each day, so that their milk can be extracted from their udders and fed to a completely different species (humans). After about 10 months of being violated daily by milking machines, they are forcibly impregnated once again, and the painful cycle continues. Over half of the country’s dairy cows suffer from mastitis, an infection of the udder, from constantly being milked.
Dairy cows are genetically manipulated to produce ten times more milk than what they would produce naturally. They are often injected with growth hormones, which causes them to produce unnaturally large amounts of milk. Yet, this often causes birth defects and adverse health effects in their calves. Moreover, dairy cows are fed an unnatural diet that fuels their “productivity.” This diet often causes metabolic disorders, which causes discomfort and pain. Most ailments go unnoticed and untreated.
When dairy cows are no longer able to produce milk, which is usually when they are between 4-5 years old, they are said to be “spent.” No longer profitable to the dairy industry, “spent” cows are sent to slaughter to become “beef.” By this time, many dairy cows are so weak that they can’t even stand up and are literally dragged to slaughter. In the U.S., there are over 9 million dairy cows that endure such cruel treatment.
The veal industry is a by-product of the dairy industry. Veal calves, who are usually male calves born to dairy cows, spend their entire lives isolated in “veal crates,” which are tiny wooden crates that severely restrict their movement; some are even chained.
Often, there is no straw or bedding in veal crates, and these cramped spaces prohibit the calves from sleeping comfortably, stretching, grooming themselves, or engaging in social behavior. Calves are forced to lie in their own feces and, as a result, experience chronic stress and frustration, causing them to toss their heads, scratch, and kick. They’re fed a diet that’s intentionally deficient in iron and fiber. Depriving calves of iron and the opportunity to exercise is done to produce a “tender” and “pale” colored flesh for veal consumers.
After living short, miserable lives, veal calves are typically slaughtered when they are between 16-18 weeks of age. When they are sent to slaughter, they often aren’t even able to walk, as their muscles are severely underdeveloped due to the intensive confinement throughout their short, pathetic lives. Close to half a million male veal calves are raised and slaughtered each year in the U.S.
For the first 6 months of their lives, most “cattle” raised for their “meat” live on a range, unprotected against inclement weather and disease. They can die from heat exhaustion, hypothermia, and disastrous floods, and some are killed by wild animals, such as wolves. For identification purposes, they are branded with a hot iron, without any pain relief, and they often endure ‘waddling,’ a painful procedure in which chunks are cut out of their necks for identification purposes.
After grazing for about 6 months, beef “cattle” are auctioned off and taken to overcrowded holding pens/feed lots for an additional 6 months, where they are “fattened up” by being fed diets that are high in grain and soy. Because the stomachs of cattle are designed to break down grass, and not corn and soy, they often develop diseases and metabolic disorders from these “feed lot diets.” Moreover, “cattle” are pumped full of growth-hormones/steroids and antibiotics at the feed lot.
When it comes time for their slaughter, federal law “requires” that cows and bulls be rendered unconscious before they are hung up by their legs, their throats are slit, and they bleed to death. However, because most slaughterhouses kill hundreds of cattle per hour and kill lines move so quickly, the stunning process is very inaccurate, which means that it’s not unusual for their throats to be slit while they are fully conscious.