Do Cows Play? What Cows Can Teach Us About Friendship

do cows play

There are 987 million cows on the planet, and most of us have little to do with them. Far more people consume beef or dairy than actually know a cow. Despite being instantly recognizable, our everyday knowledge of cattle is limited. Instead, most people avoid relating to cows in the same ways they may relate to more familiar animals like dogs or cats. But this attitude is unjustified. The question we should be asking is if these animals are more complicated than we think, do cows play?

Cattle are playful, social, and sensitive animals, and the sooner we acknowledge their sentience, the sooner they can be treated with the kindness they deserve.

Are Cows Friendly?

They certainly can be, although this depends somewhat on the cow in question. Much like humans and other animals, cows are individuals with distinct and discrete psychologies and personalities. Terms like “temperament” or “behavioral syndromes,” which scientific literature often uses to describe cows’ behavior, are meant to distinguish cows from people. But there is no genuine distinction between what these terms describe and one’s personality. 

One part of a cow’s personality is sociability, which means that within a herd, some cows may be more gregarious characters than others. In general, cows are social, herd animals, and so a level of friendliness and cooperation amongst themselves is essential to their survival.

There has been some fear surrounding cows and their perceived lack of friendliness due to a few isolated cases of people fatally trampled by a herd. These instances are rare and almost always have to do with dogs, who tend to make cows feel threatened. Bulls can be more aggressive and should be avoided. When cows have calves during the spring months, some caution is warranted, as their maternal instinct can manifest in aggression. Still, cows are generally friendly and approachable animals. People who engage in healthy relationships with cows are rewarded and impressed by their sensitivity, friendliness, and intelligence.

Do Cows Play?

Cows play as much as they can and particularly enjoy a good frolic in their childhood years. Almost all types of play associated with other mammal species, including pets like dogs, can be witnessed in cows. Cows enjoy playing with balls, bucking, gambolling, galloping, and play-fighting. They also play with other species, including humans. They are highly social creatures, and some choice, heart-warming footage of cows playing is available on YouTube.

Unfortunately, current animal industry practice tends to curtail play in animals, leading to worse social development and poor wellbeing in the farmed cows exploited for food. For example, calves raised together tend to engage in play fighting, which encourages their future success in the herd hierarchy by engendering assertiveness. However, calves raised in isolation exhibit no such traits and are at a social disadvantage. Farmed cows have their social abilities further inhibited by the significant pain cattle have to endure. From lameness and infections like mastitis to castration, branding, disbudding, and dehorning, cattle are subjected to considerable pain that impairs their ability to play.

Do Cows Have Feelings?

Cows have feelings and are capable of communicating intense emotion. Studies have tended to focus on a simple categorization of bovine emotion, sorting experience into “positive” and “negative” categories and evaluating intensity from “weak” to “strong.” However, this approach oversimplifies the complexity of cows’ emotions. Cows react differently to different negative and positive stimuli, suggesting that cows have more complex psychological reactions than negative or positive feelings.

Cows also exhibit group emotional behavior through emotional contagion and emotional buffering. Emotional contagion occurs when one highly stressed cow will make the rest of the herd stressed, too. Emotional buffering is when a calm cow will help stabilize and destress other individuals. This behavior is a testament to the social nature of cows’ emotions. They rely on one another, physically and psychologically, as all group animals do.

There are also remarkable findings regarding complex emotions in cows. In one experiment, researchers found that cows became more excited when they gave themselves an award after completing a task, rather than being presented with one. The authors of the study speculated that this increased emotional arousal was due to the personal satisfaction that the cows felt after becoming better at the task. If this is the case, cows’ self-awareness is truly remarkable and has implications for cows’ emotional intelligence.

Do Cows Feel Sad?

Cows can certainly feel sadness, as well as other negative emotions. Their emotional reaction can be triggered by a single event and last for a long period of time. Traumatic events in a cow’s life can be physically excruciating acts like dehorning or emotionally damaging events like separating calves and mothers, which is standard practice in the dairy industry.

Cows will maintain a depressed and anxious psychological state for days after such events. They will remain emotionally impaired due to the past trauma, interpreting neutral or ambiguous stimuli more hesitantly or negatively. One sign that a cow is in a negative emotional state is that there is more white showing in their eyes. The positioning of their ears can also be an indicator of emotional distress.

Can a Cow Cry?

They can cry insofar as they can vocalize emotion and cry out in pain. Mother cows often do this when their calves are forcibly removed from them. Mother cows will cry out for days on end for their calf, whose voice they hope to hear and recognize in response. There is not much difference between this behavior and expressing one’s troubled emotional state by crying.

However, cows do not produce tears or water in their eyes as a side effect of emotion. Some videos which imply as much are misleading. Cows’ eyes will moisten to resist dryness, and excessive water and overspill may be the result of an infection. However, cows can experience a range of negative emotions, as explained above.

Do Cows Bond With Humans?

They certainly can, and do. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest this. From the author of “The Secret Life of Cows” to the insight of veterinarians and the work of D. H. Lawrence, cows are often described as capable of forming close relationships with humans. However, cows are rarely kept as companions, and most people do not recognize their friendship. 

Humanity has contrived a barrier between cows and conventional pets where one should not exist. One animal is pigeonholed as a means of production and the other as a companion, even though both can bond with people, both can feel physical pain and pleasure, and both can experience complex emotions. Cows can and will bond with humans, but they need the opportunity to do so.

Do Cows Have Best Friends?

Cows can certainly have best friends, and there is substantial documentation that proves that cows tend to favor socializing with certain individuals in a herd. A recent study has shown that cows can recognize other individuals, particularly those of their own breed. The more familiar an individual is, the more quickly a cow will recognize them. This study exposed cows to photos of other cows, which they proceeded to run towards in anticipation, just like a human running to greet their best friend.

Cattle licking has also been the subject of investigation and has proven to be a bonding mechanism. Research amongst Austrian Simmental cows demonstrated that cows that received licks experienced a lowered heart rate, implying that they found the experience relaxing. In a study involving zebu cattle in Kenya, researchers discovered that some cows only licked their friends.

As for best friends, research in the UK found that more than half of individual cows spent their time eating and relaxing alongside one specific cow, a best friend of a sort. Researchers also demonstrated that cows who were separated from the herd alongside their favored companion showed less stress than when they were with a cow they had no specific bond to. This pivotal research reveals that cows certainly recognize each other and prefer the company of their best friends.

Do Cows Like To Be Petted?

Cows do seem to enjoy petting, at least some of the time. One study showed that eye-white percentage decreased in cows after gentle petting, which implied increased happiness and relaxation. Other investigations demonstrated that cows exhibited lowered heart rates, elongated their necks, and lowered their ears when stroked in specific areas where cattle tend to lick one another.

Cows only really like being petted in particular areas, namely parts of their upper back and neck. Stroking their flanks, for example, did not elicit the same response. The enjoyment of rubs and pets in certain areas is not unique to cows, as pet owners probably know. Cats enjoy head-butts or face rubs from human companions, as this is how they greet other cats.

Cows aren’t the only ones who benefit from petting, as the cow cuddling trend has shown. The therapeutic effects of a good cow hug are well-documented. If cows and humans alike benefit from cuddling, there’s no wonder the trend is growing. However, as cows can exhibit different amounts of friendliness, some common sense needs to be exercised, and ambushing a herd for an impromptu snuggle might be taken as untoward. If you are going to hug a cow, a cautious and gentle approach is advised. 

How Do You Entertain A Cow?

Cows enjoy a good pet, particularly on their necks and upper backs. Yet mostly they entertain each other as part of a herd. Access to other cows is a necessity for cows. There are, however, many ways you can facilitate a cow’s social urges. Cows like to play with certain toys, like balls or hanging ropes or piles of hay or grass to root around in. These interactions will provide mental stimulation. They also like mild and interesting smells like lavender and the soothing tones of classical music or quiet.

What Do Cows Not Like?

Cows don’t like loud noises, being separated from the herd, or being harried by dogs. They also don’t like confined spaces, being cornered, or if they feel their child is in danger. They also experience a degree of neophobia, meaning they can be suspicious of new objects introduced into their surroundings. However, these examples are not unique to cows. Most mammals, including human beings, dislike these things, too.

More than anything, cows dislike the practices they are forced to endure on factory farms. These include painful procedures like castration, disbudding, dehorning, branding, and slaughter. Separation from the herd, which occurs in the final moments of a cow’s life, has been proven to be particularly distressing. The separation of calves from mothers causes depression and distress over several days. 

Due to more exhausting, violent, and intensive agricultural practices, dairy cows’ lifespans have decreased by an average of 35 months since 1960. Mother dairy cows, who only tend to live for about five years instead of a natural twenty, have a calf each year to maintain their milk production. The trauma of separation, so that the cow’s milk may go to human consumers rather than their child, is, therefore, an annual ritual. 

Cows Need Your Protection

Cows are curious and intelligent creatures who experience complex emotions, play with each other, have best friends, and even exhibit acute levels of self-awareness. Their fundamental urges to socialize, enter into relationships, guard their young, stimulate their brains, and avoid the pain of the brand, knife, and bolt-gun are relatable, even to us humans. 

But despite their friendly and playful natures, farmed cows are prevented from engaging in the behaviors that make them happy. The agriculture industry’s choice to exploit cows, turn them into “food animals,” and deny them their natural lives is just that: a choice. In seeing cattle as creatures with value of their own, humanity can bring their vision of cows closer to their conception of pets and begin to treat cows as their own beings, deserving of the same love and affection.