Cows need friends, and when deprived of this very basic need, their mental capacity suffers. Animal welfare researcher Charlotte Gaillard of the University of British Columbia set out to shed light on this issue and offer insight into how cows learn, especially during the crucial growing age.
Her recent study examined the differences in learning among calves with varying levels of socialization. The results showed that cows, like all social species, need interaction to grow and flourish.
On dairy farms, calves are typically separated from their mothers and housed individually and this is playing a major role in their ability not just to thrive, but possibly even just to survive. Gaillard’s study demonstrates that it is not just human children that suffer from solitary confinement. Cows are social critters, and when deprived of friendship, they perform more poorly on tests of cognitive development.
Not many studies have been conducted on the behavior of cows, and even less so on their cognitive performance as it relates to whether or not they have had the company of friends growing up. Why? Because cows are livestock, and livestock are only thought of in functional terms of milk, meat, leather or labor.
The tests, which employed the help of singly and socially housed calves between the ages of 4 to 8 weeks, saw the cows associate different colored squares with food rewards, as well as placing them in a pen with an unfamiliar object to see how willing they were to interact with it either by licking, sniffing or pushing.
The results showed that cows that had grown up in a more social setting, where they were able to form bonds and friendships, were able to cope with the tests with ease and confidence. The isolated calves, however, were much less capable of coping with complex tasks, and in the case of being placed in a pen with an unfamiliar object, they were never able to get used to its presence and showed increased anxiety, acting fearful and uncertain about what was going on around them.
Animals can have rich social lives, and their wellbeing depends on how able they are to interact and engage with each other and their environment.
On today’s modern farms, the majority of calves are confined to tiny spaces where they cry out to be reunited with their mothers and siblings.
Cows are not simply machines that can withstand the cruel and abhorrent practices that they are forced to endure. They are living, breathing beings that experience pain and suffering akin to our own, and as this study shows, depriving them of their family and friends is not a humane way to treat them.
At sanctuaries, cows are able to fully express their complex personalities and emotions, and are given the freedom to develop their cognitive abilities on their own terms, as well as make friends and take up company with whoever they might take a fancy too. Remember Sweety and Tricia from Farm Sanctuary - the two blind cows that became best friends after living 350 miles apart? They are the perfect testament as to why it is so important for cows to have friends, not just for learning, but for love.
Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals