Stroking, gently

Whenever I find myself on a city farm (in Dutch: kinderboerderij), I often try to get the attention of the grazing cows. Often they turn their heads towards me just to go about their own business – chewing grass – a few seconds later. But occasionally and upon a gentle call – they come to me as if they understood my good intentions. Does it mean that cows can in fact perceive the interactions with humans as something positive? This study may give a clue.

Cows as Pets

The authors of this study were interested in whether repetitive and gentle interactions with humans make calves less afraid of them. They went to a commercial farm in Germany, and for the duration of 14 days, they pet newborn calves for 3 minutes each day. They stroked each calf on the ventral neck and talked to them with a soft soothing voice. The researcher first waited for a calf to approach her while talking to her gently, and in one third of the interactions the calves approached the researchers themselves. The majority of the calves allowed themselves to be stroked and showed signs of enjoyment. In almost 40% of all interactions, the calves stretched their neck towards the researcher – a sign of relaxation. They also licked the researchers during the interactions and showed play behavior such as jumping, which is a sign of positive emotions! The authors found it remarkable that calves played during the interactions, as it does not occur frequently among the cows. These observations confirm that cows do experience gentle interactions with a human as a positive experience.

Stroked calves become less afraid

But do these positive interactions make the calves less afraid of humans? When we experience something as positive or rewarding, we tend to approach it. For example, we would be drawn towards a playful and happy dog and would feel invited to have a chat with a smiling person. On the other hand – we avoid things and situations that we perceive as unpleasant or potentially painful. We would therefore intuitively step back when encountering a barking dog or a scary spider, which would be a sign of fear. The facial expression of others can also give us a clue about whether it’s safe for us to interact with that person. Indeed, we are more likely to be drawn towards someone smiling than someone who is looking daggers at us. Approaching positive and avoiding negative situations is absolutely essential for successful adaptation in the environment which is not only observed in humans, but across the whole animal kingdom.

Also in cows. After 14 days of daily interactions with humans, the researchers tested whether the calves would avoid the researcher. The researcher individually approached the calf and extended her hand towards her nose. The distance at which the calf stepped back or drew her head in response to this gesture was used as a measure of fearful avoidance. If the researcher could touch the nose of the calf, the avoidance distance was estimated as 0 cm. Not surprisingly, the previously stroked calves showed less avoidance behavior compared to those who were not pet. Cows show less fear towards humans who have treated them gently!

More than just economic gains

Petted cows were also found to gain more weight. Especially those who received more milk, showed approximately 6.6% more daily weight gain compared to cows who did not experience gently interactions with humans. For farmers, it is important because higher weight gain is commonly associated with higher milk yield in later life, which is an important economic aspect. But there is something else to it. It shows that cows are able to learn and recognize what is good or bad for them. And similarly to us, they will avoid situations and humans whom they perceive as potentially dangerous or unpleasant. Despite appearances of passive grass-eaters, cows will remember your soothing voice and kindness. And next time – when you gently call them on a city farm – they will come to you, trusting your kindness.

Picture from ivabalk via Pixabay