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Facts about Cows (Cattle)–Sentience, Intelligence and Social Behaviour

Facts about Cows (Cattle)–Sentience, Intelligence and Social Behaviour

When people see cows in a field standing around, lying down, grazing & chewing cud or staring at space they may think cows are dull & brainless creatures who don’t look like the experts of their field.  

Though that could be the first impression where they’re merely seen as steak, ground beef, veal, leather and dairy, suitable only to be enslaved for our appetite, if you come into contact or observe them over a period of time, you will realize there’s a lot going on between those ears of these creatures and there is more to them than meets the eye.

The facts you get to know from this post about sentience, intelligence and social behavior of cattle should hopefully let you appreciate how amazing, smart and emotional cows are. Do note that when we’re talking about cows, we’re referring to cattle in general.


sentience, intelligence and social behavior of cattle - cow & calf bond

  • When it comes to showing affection to their offspring cows are much like human mothers. They have a gestation period of nine months and lactate allowing their newborn calf to suckle for 9-12 months. Prior to giving birth cows are known to distant themselves from their herd and hide their calf/calves behind long grass or under a shady tree for several days to protect from all intruders.
  • Due to mother-calf strong bond, there have been numerous reports where mother cows continuously bellow and call out in search for her calf, when the calves are separated and sold to veal farms. She will stop for a while and start crying again. They’re so devotional, some have even walked miles to find their lost calves.
  • Though many emotions such as disgust, sadness, happiness, fear, anger, and surprise can easily be detected with human facial expressions, it doesn’t mean cows don’t have such emotions since their facial expressions are not as detailed as ours. Let’s say we’re not accustomed to have a close look at their expressions. You can know a lot by simply observing their eyes. Usually when cows are in a state of calmness the white of their eyes are much less whereas when they fear, anxious or under threat, the white would drastically increase. This can easily be seen when calves are separated from mothers which is a common & routine practice in the dairy industry.
  • Just like eyes, their ears, heart rate, and hormone levels can show how cows feel. For an instance, when cows were stroked on their favored areas such as their cheeks & neck they got into a relaxed state which lowers the heart rate, stress hormone levels and ears were either loosely held backwards, or hanging downwards. You can also know whether the cows are on alert when you see their ears are held upright or forwards.
  • While stroking cows another notable change was their nasal temperature which can be a useful indicator of emotional state. Researchers have found when cows were more relaxed while stroking had a lower nasal temperature compared to the average temperature of pre-stroking & post-stroking.
  • When cows are released into outdoor fields after being confined to indoors for long periods of time, they seem to be over the moon with jubilation. They run, jump, and buck in excitement with freedom and joy.


  • According to studies done on leadership in cows show that they don’t consider another as a leader based on facts such as how well they bully & harass others, how often they moo, selfishness, or their size & strength. They naturally follow another as a leader based on their intelligence, direction with a purpose, confidence, good social behavior and experience. The reason for putting this point under intelligence is the fact that it takes intelligence to follow authentic leaders rather than fake leaders.
  • Cows seem to have an understanding of cause & effect which shows their awareness and advanced cognitive capabilities. Studies have shown that cows have learned to push a lever to obtain water from a drinking fountain and when they’re hungry to press a button from their heads to receive food. Certainly not dumb animals and show how well they can learn new tasks which are completely different from what they’ve been doing naturally.


  • In 2004, Cambridge University research showed that heifers (young cows under three years old and never given birth) were full of enthusiasm when they were put under certain challenges and overcame problems reaping a food reward. Their brainwaves were more active, heart rate increased, and many of them were seen to be jumping & kicking in excitement after solving the problem. When they were simply given the same food reward with no challenge, no signs of excitement was shown. This proved, what gave them joy is problem-solving and not merely the food reward!
  • Cows also show how they use memory to overcome their routine challenges and social behavior. In their natural habitats cows remember sources of food & water, migrating routes, ideal locations to shelter, and differentiate individual cows.
  • Another way they use experience and memory is to maintain their resistance to disease and parasites by consuming medicinal plants and keep illnesses at bay by avoiding poisonous forbs & plants. This is something they seem to pass down from generation to generation.
  • Just like us cows avoid danger & harm learned by previous experiences. They tend to avoid and communicate others in the herd about painful experiences with electrical fences, electrical prodding and have shown fear responses to humans from previous encounters of harm to their lives.
  • Ever thought, what exactly cows are trying to say when they ‘moo’ or ‘bellow’? Certainly, it’s not a crazy & mindless sound they make. It’s their way of communicating to convey messages and show others how they feel or the needs they have. These sounds have subtle differences and used to find each other, indicate that they’re ready to mate, to show excitement, joy, pain, grief, and anger. Further sounds made by calves show their requirement for nursing, and bulls have territorial calls. Cows will continue to make loud high-frequency calls days or even weeks when they have lost their calves or being separated.

Social Behaviour

  • Cows just like many other animals and humans have varied and interesting personalities. Some are bright, others can be slow learners. Some are bold & adventurous others can be shy, nervous or timid. Some can be bossy, mean & aggressive yet others can be social and friendly. Some can be curious about new things they find while others can be indifferent.
  • Cattle have a social hierarchy and through leadership hierarchies and bonds they gain a lot of knowledge about their members of the herd and have social interactions. While grooming (licking), sleeping arrangements, and queue positions show individual ranks in the social hierarchy, the ringleaders will always act promptly when trouble occurs.
  • Cattle also prefer to sleep close to their families and they form close friendships where they tend to spend most of their time with a few conspecifics they prefer. They may also dislike some members of the herd and can hold grudges for a long time.
  • According to research, cows mourn when they’re separated from their families, friends, or human companions. Their suffering is apparent, and they can be saddened even for a brief separation.
  • Just like many other animals and us, cows enjoy playing and they may even bond with animals from other species and play with them. When they’re not in a healthy state, the playful activities will reduce.

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Last Thoughts

When people say “stupid cow” or “herded like cattle” not only they insult humans but they insult cows showing a lack of knowledge about their sentience, intelligence, and social behavior.  

Now that you got to know a lot about cows, we just hope you understood how amazing they are and the amount of respect they deserve as sentient beings.

It’s pretty obvious that they are not happily submitting themselves to be a piece of steak or a leather jacket.   

We just hope you will admire these creatures for who they’re and consider a vegan diet which is compassionate, healthy and environmentally-friendly.

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