SCIENCE
07/28/2015 02:27 pm ET

Cows Are Way More Intelligent Than You Probably Thought

They might be slow movers, but they're quick thinkers.

When we think about our most intelligent friends in the animal kingdom, species like orangutans, dolphins, elephants and octopuses are likely to come to mind. 

Dairy cows probably don't make the list. But research, including a new study conducted by an undergraduate student in Australia, suggests these farm animals may be smarter than we give them credit for. 

Alexandra Green, a 21-year-old student at the University of Sydney, developed a test that provides evidence of cows' sophisticated cognitive abilities. Green found that dairy cows could follow sound through a maze in order to find food, suggesting heightened executive function and decision-making abilities. 

These capabilities shouldn't be surprising to us, says zoologist Dr. Daniel Weary, a professor in the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia

"These are highly developed mammals that have been solving problems for a long, long time," he told The Huffington Post. "If anything, it reflects poorly on us that we're surprised that these animals are smart. Of course these animals are smart." 

Mastering the maze 

For the experiment, Green trained six dairy cows to navigate a large T-shaped maze modeled after smaller mazes used on mice and rats. The cows were trained to follow sound through the maze in order to get to their food. 

Four out of the six heifers nailed the test, while the other two scored 75 percent. One cow was able to find the food in under 20 seconds on the first day of learning the maze, suggesting intelligence levels can vary widely between animals.  

"They would turn their heads to where the sound was," Green told New Zealand Farmer. "They would really think about it, whereas in the beginning they were making a guess."

The findings may have some important implications for the cattle industry, Cameron Clark, a research fellow at the University of Sydney, told the publication. For instance, farmers might be able to use sound to train their cattle to come in for milking, reducing manual labor and improving efficiency. They might even be able to train individual cows to respond to different sounds, allowing the farmers to call in the livestock on demand. 

Raising our livestock with respect  

In a study conducted last year, Weary showed that dairy cows possess remarkable emotional sensitivity. The cows he studied were deeply affected by emotional and physical pain of early separation from their mothers and dehorning, which changed the brain in a way that led to a negative cognitive bias akin to pessimism. 

Weary and colleagues also found that dairy cows housed in isolation, which is common practice in farming, exhibit anxiety and perform poorly on cognitive tests.  

These and other findings raise some ethical questions about how we treat cattle that are raised for dairy and beef, which are often raised in isolation and in inhumane conditions.

Weary said he would like increased knowledge and awareness to translate to increased respect and more humane living conditions for these animals. 

"I hope we learn more about how interesting and smart these animals are," he said. "If we are going to use these animals for our own ends, we should treat them with respect, and work hard so we can give them what they need and make sure they have a good life that we're proud of."  

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