World Animal Protection's science team carried out research at Bolton Park Farm, to assess sentience in dairy cattle.

Stroking cows - for science of course



How do we know a cow is happy? At World Animal Protection we are pioneering new research to explore dairy cow emotions and answer just that question.

In the winter of 2013 my colleague Gemma Carder, some great volunteers, and I, were shivering in a UK dairy cow barn stroking cows. Though it sounds like fun (which it was) it was all in the name of animal welfare science. Today, we are now back in that same barn, enjoying warmer temperatures and continuing our research into cow emotions. 

It all began when someone asked me “How do we know a cow is happy?” I told them how hard it is to truly read another animal’s emotions, but physiological measures such as heart rate measures, and stress hormones can tell us a little. Their eyes glazed over.

So I told them about how if you saw how cows jump and run when they are released onto pasture after a winter indoors you couldn’t help but admit that these were happy cows. 

“But what about the rest of the time? How do we know how they feel?” my colleague asked. I admitted that we can’t know for sure, and there and then I decided to spend the next few years finding out how to ‘talk cow’.

Why is measuring emotions important for animal protection?

Understanding and measuring animal emotions is essential for improving animal’s lives. 

Animals can be fit and healthy, have all the food and water they need, but still have poor welfare. That’s because animals, like us, are emotional beings. They feel pain, fear, pleasure and joy.

If we want to make sure that animals are feeling good, experiencing positive emotions such as happiness and joy, then we need to know how to measure these emotions. 


Measuring positive emotions

In 2013, we looked at whether cows communicated their emotions through their ears, eyes, and noses. We focussed just on the emotional experience; relaxed and calm, and induced this experience by stroking the cows. Previous studies have shown that this calms cows and that it is a positive experience for them.



We found that the cows held their ears in four different positions, two were relaxed (images 2 and 4 above) and two were alert (images 1 and 3). The cows held the relaxed positions for longer when they were being stroked than when they weren't, and held the alert positions for less time during stroking than before or after stroking. This means that we can tell how relaxed cows are feeling from looking at their ears. One position in particular was nearly only performed during stroking, which means that it is a great indicator of a relaxed cow.

As for their eyes, we found that when the cows were relaxed, their visible eye whites would decrease. They would then slowly increase again once we stopped stroking them, back up to original levels.

The temperature of the cows' noses also decreased during the stroking experience. As so little has been done on nasal temperatures in animals we need to explore this further to understand how useful this measure is.

What next?

After many, many hours of data analysis (not all science is stroking cows), we developed some very strong results. If you would like to read more, you can access the scientific papers below:

‘Can ear postures reliably measure the positive emotional state of cows?’

‘Nasal temperatures in dairy cows are influenced by positive emotional state’

‘Measuring positive emotions in cows: Do visible eye whites tell us anything?’

We're back with the same cows this summer, studying their emotional responses to food. Hopefully we will be getting them excited this time so that we can expand on our initial findings. I'll be writing regularly for the Animal sentience blog so make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to hear about the latest posts. 

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