How Intelligent Is a Cow? (Summary of Studies)

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I’m not sure what causes it, but most people think cows are mindless animals eating grass all day.

And while they do eat a lot of grass, cows do a lot more than that, and are intelligent creatures.

Many studies have looked at the intelligence of cows, and I’m going to summarize the key findings from many of them.

Learning & Memory in Cows

Cows have shown that they can remember quite specific things, and can learn how to solve problems.

Let’s go over a few studies that show this.

Cows Can Learn and Remember the Location of Food

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A sample of cows were taught the location of a feeder for 20 minutes a day, for 5 days.

When tested on the location 6 weeks later, an impressive 77% of cows retained what they learned and could find the feeder.

Cows Can Be Trained to Understand Audio Cues

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A group of cows were taught to move to a certain area when an alarm sounded. They were able to learn this cue within seven trials.

In another study, cows heard an audio cue (not a loud alarm) when they left their area, and were shocked via a collar. Within 4 sessions, the majority of cows stopped crossing over this “invisible” border.

Cows Can Press Buttons For Nutrients

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When calves were salt-deficient, they learned to press a button in order to get access to a sodium (salt) solution.

Cows Can Anticipate Movement

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A group of cows were fed off a slow-moving food trolley.

At a certain point, the food passed under a tunnel (couldn’t be seen).

Many cows were able to understand what was happening and followed the trolley to the other side of the tunnel to wait for the food.

This is a common test called the Krushinskii test. Cows did well on it, but not quite as good as pigs (who are possibly smarter than dogs) and goats.

This test doesn’t prove object permanence, but does suggest that cows have some level of it. For reference, humans don’t start developing object permanence until 18-24 months old in most cases.

Cows Can Differentiate Between Shapes and Colors

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The heading says it all. Cows can be trained to recognize objects by:

  • Shape
  • Color (even brightness)
  • Size (even when shapes are the same)

Cows can even differentiate between people based on what they wear or how they treat them.

Cows Can Navigate Mazes Based on Sound

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A group of 6 cows were tested on how well they could follow sound through a maze.

Four of them scored perfect scores, while the other 2 scored 75%.

The lead author of the study made an interesting observation:

They would turn their heads to where the sound was. They would really think about it, whereas in the beginning they were making a guess. 

Cows Have Emotions Too

A variety of studies have clearly shown that cows not only have emotions, but fairly complex ones.

Cows Demonstrate Fear

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When placed in a new area, cows show that they are uncomfortable. They vocalize, often attempt to escape, and are more likely to defecate.

Also interesting is that cows show different fear responses in different situations. While we don’t fully understand them, it shows another level of complexity to fear in cows.

Cows Recognize Humans Based on Handling

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This is related to learning and memory as discussed above.

Both calves and cows show fear when encountering people who have handled them roughly in the past.

Cow Mothers Separated From Calves Show Frustration

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One of the most common signs of frustration in cows is increased eye whites (i.e. white part of the eyes).

This occurs reliably when calves are taken away from mother cows, and it goes away when they are reunited.

Cows Like to Play

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The concept of playing by itself shows that an animal has curiosity and innovation, and some level of complex thinking.

Cows, dogs, and goats are just some animals that all play.

Cows Enjoy the Learning Process

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When cows in one study were able to successfully complete a test, they showed excitement by rubbing against the human experimenters.

Cows Like Companions

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Cows actively look for other cows to spend time with, suggesting an understanding of social support.

This behavior is most prominent in young calves.

Mother Cows Have Strong Emotional Bonds With Calves

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Mother cows have strong bonds that form immediately after birth. The weaning process takes many months.

This is one aspect of the dairy and meat industries that is so cruel. Babies are typically taken from their mothers either right after birth or within 24 hours.

Summary: How Smart Are Cows?

Well, we can’t exactly assign cows an IQ number, but it’s clear that they’re pretty smart.

Cows have demonstrated that they:

  • Can learn new behaviors quickly
  • Have reliable long-term memory
  • Are able to process signals (movement, sound) to solve problems
  • Have strong emotional responses
  • Are social animals

They’re on the same level as most other animals that we consider intelligent, although probably not quite as smart as dogs or pigs.

In any case, cows are a lot smarter than what most of us grew up thinking they are.

And while there’s a decent amount of research on cow intelligence, there’s a lot more to be done that may reveal even more interesting findings.

About the author

Dale C.

Your friendly neighborhood vegan from Toronto. Chemical engineer turned semi-professional soccer player and freelance writer. Trying to do my small part in making the world better by writing about the wonderful world of veganism.

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