Udderly Intelligent

While you might be willing to acknowledge that a cow can be out standing in its field, I’m willing to bet that you don’t typically think of Bessie as leading a rich intellectual and emotional life.  You might want to think again.

According to The Sunday Times1, “cows have a secret mental life in which they bear grudges, nurture friendships and become excited over intellectual challenges.” Moreover, cows don’t have a monopoly on farm animal intelligence, as the article reports similar findings for sheep, pigs, goats, chickens and other livestock.

Notable feats of barnyard intellectual prowess include:

  • Cows form friendship groups and spend most of their most of their timing licking, grooming and generally hanging out with a few other like-minded bovines.  They can also form dislikes and hold grudges “for months or years.” (Note to self: don’t get on the wrong side of a cow.)
  • Cows have become so excited in solving intellectual challenges such as figuring out how to open a door to get some food that their “brainwaves showed their excitement; their heartbeat went up and some even jumped into the air.” (Ok, that alone made this post worthwhile – I would pay to see a cow jump into the air as it solved a puzzle!)
  • Sheep can recognize up to 50 other sheep simply by looking at their profiles, and can remember the other sheep even after a year apart.  (Admit it, you can’t do that.)
  • Sheep can form strong affections for particular humans, become depressed when separated from their human friends, and greet them enthusiastically … even after three years.

So, a little additional respect for livestock is definitely in order.  While it may suit our purposes to think of farm animals as dumb, unfeeling beasts who exist only to serve us, this simply is not the case.  They are complex emotional beings that lead active intellectual lives filled with strong memories, friendships, dislikes, fears and great achievements.  Next time a cow turns its large head towards you and looks at you with those big brown eyes, remember that it just may leap with excitement if you tell it that it’s your friend.


1The Sunday Times (UK), “The secret life of moody cows,” February 27, 2005.

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