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Are Cows Smart? What Recent Research Says About Cows’ Intelligence

May 24, 2022
Time to read: 6 minutes

Intelligence is a topic to visit with care, and one that’s not easy to define. Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Neel Burton has explained that intelligence covers all the ways in which we adapt and respond to the environment around us. Who we label as intelligent depends on what is important or meaningful to us. 

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Historically, women, People of the Global Majority, poor people, and disabled people have been seen as less intelligent and fundamentally less human than wealthy, white, cisgender, heteronormative males. Burton cites as one example the state-led, forced sterilization of “feeble-minded” individuals in the United States, which occurred from about 1909 to 1964. Burton also quotes from the famous Rudyard Kipling poem, “White Man’s Burden,” as an example of how British colonizers saw themselves as more human and more intelligent than the people of British India who they subjugated, and who fought back for their independence. 

Ableism, a system of oppression that is linked to white supremacy, also shapes who we think of as human. In her book “Beasts of Burden,” artist and scholar Sunaura Taylor writes that “intellectual ability and cognitive capacity still play a powerful role in maintaining racialized, gendered, classed, and ableist power structures.” Because nonhuman animals lack certain intellectual abilities, they are seen as inferior to humans. 

Taylor critiques “the use of cognitive capacity as an index of worth.” It’s better, she writes, to value “other ways of knowing, being, and experiencing,” than to privilege a narrowly defined idea of intelligence in the effort to create exclusionary categories. 

This practice is something that can be done when evaluating the intelligence of nonhuman animals. Taylor challenges readers to question themselves when they use sentience—and its connection with intelligence—to decide whether to protect living and nonliving beings in our environment, whether an insect, a plant, or even a mountain. 

Taylor explains that while we are limited in our understanding of other animals because of our preconceptions about what intelligence is, it’s still important to try to learn from the abilities of other animals. That said, there is also plenty of evidence that animals are more intelligent according to conventional understandings than a lot of people give them credit for.

Are Cows Intelligent?    

Yes, cows are intelligent. All animals are intelligent. It’s just a matter of how we describe their intelligence: how do animals use the information they have about their environment to make important decisions for themselves?

Recent Research on Cow Intelligence    

Most research about cows tends to focus on how cows are used to make goods and food, and few scientists and researchers pay attention to what life is like from a cow’s perspective. Still, Lori Marino and Kristin Allen looked for scientific research on this topic and wrote a major psychological review of the lives of cows and how they compare with those of other animals. In their report, they write that intelligence refers to how quickly, deeply, and with how much complexity an individual “acquires, processes, stores and acts upon information.” 

Their article was published in Animal Behavior and Cognition in 2017, and its findings were summarized by Marc Bekoff in Psychology Today. Some of their findings are described below.

How Smart Are Cows?    

What we know about how smart cows are is limited by our understanding of cows and how we define what it means to be smart. There are many areas of intelligence that we share with cows. However, we should also keep in mind that when we only look at similarities to human intelligence, “we tend to obscure or overlook distinctly valuable aspects of the lives of others,” a point made by the philosopher Lori Gruen and quoted in Taylor’s "Beasts of Burden."

Emotional Intelligence

Cows offer each other emotional support to get through difficulties in life. They comfort each other, reducing others’ stress simply by standing nearby. One study found that cows can smell the stress experienced by other nearby cows. An empathetic cow responds to others’ stress by slowing down their feeding and shows signs of increased stress themselves in the form of increased cortisol. Marino and Allen write that this ability to feel the emotional state of another cow, as that cow might be feeling it, is a form of empathy called emotional contagion. Empathy is an ability that can help individuals take action to help each other for the greater good.

Spatial Intelligence

Sunaura Taylor writes that there are ways to read animal behavior that allow us to understand what they are saying, even if they are not speaking in full English sentences. For example, when they try to escape situations that confine or harm them, we can see how they are expressing themselves. Escape attempts also show us cows’ spatial skills as they maneuver their bodies around obstacles towards safety.

Marino and Allen describe spatial cognition as “the ability to acquire knowledge of, remember, organize and utilize information about spatial aspects of one’s environment, including navigation and learning” to figure out where things are. They report a robust body of studies in which cows used their memories of foraging strategies to get food more efficiently.

Memory

Cows are great at remembering where things are. Marino and Allen report a study in which 77 percent of cows retained information for six weeks after they had stopped being tested about where a feeder was located. In a different study on spatial memory, cows retained information for up to eight hours about how to get through a maze that contained food stored in different locations. 

Perception

Cows rely most heavily on their eyesight for getting information about their environment. Having their eyes located on the sides of their heads gives them a 330-degree view of their surroundings. They have dichromatic vision, meaning they can see several shades of color, but those shades are limited compared to human perception. It’s easier for cows to perceive warm colors like yellow, red and orange than cold colors such as purple, blue and green.

Social Learning

Cows can learn from another cow’s mistakes. Social learning is when a cow learns to do something by watching what another cow does and seeing the consequences of their behavior. Marino and Allen found several studies documenting social learning in cows. One housing study showed that cows picked up grazing behaviors more quickly when they lived with cows who were more experienced in grazing than themselves. Cows living with other cows also engaged in more social behaviors. Dairy calves raised in more complex social groups appear to have better coping skills. 

Do Cows Remember You?    

Yes, cows could pick you out of a crowd. Cows can tell other cows apart from each other, and from other species, even walking up to photos of familiar cows over spending time with photos of unknown cows. Cows can also tell human handlers apart from each other even when they are wearing the same clothes, especially when one handler offers food more often than the other. 

Do Cows Bond With Humans?  

Cows can and do bond with humans, though it’s not something often discussed by scientists.

Cows can form lasting bonds with each other. Just as we form cliques and gravitate toward some people more than others, so do cows. Baby cows are particularly social when they are allowed to be reared by their mothers. According to VINE Sanctuary, cows “value relationships more than anything else,” and choose to stay with their partners and families just as we do.

Are Cows Smarter Than Dogs?

Marino and Allen did not report an overall, direct comparison between cows and dogs, but there are many similarities between the two species, including the fact that both are empathetic. There are also differences between cows and dogs. Cows are better than dogs at navigating mazes when forced to take detours, but dogs outperform cows in hearing: dogs can tell where a sound is coming from more quickly than a cow.

Conclusion

As Michael Bérubé told Sunaura Taylor in “Beasts of Burden,” “There hasn't been a discovery at any point in the last five hundred years after which we said to ourselves, ‘My goodness, animals are stupider than we thought.’ Every single discovery has gone in the opposite direction.” And while it’s worth spending time valuing the ways cows are different from us, it can also be enlightening to see how they share common characteristics with humans when we measure different forms of intelligence. 
Without stepping foot near a cow, readers can begin to imagine what life might be like for them, including when they are confined in farms,  by reading accounts from people who care about cows and who study cows. Marino and Allen reported what they learned from existing research, but they also found that there is not yet enough research done on how cows think, how they learn new things, and what they remember. Many questions about the life of cows and other apparently familiar animals, and how they respond to their environments, remain to be explored.

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