Cow’s eyes reveal how they are feeling, study says

06 May 2015

Look into the eye of a cow and it might reveal how relaxed the animal is according to our new study

The study looked at whether the amount of eye white you can see in cows’ eyes can convey how they are feeling.  Our science team hope to highlight how the findings provide a way of assessing positive emotions. 

Read the study in Physiology & Behavior journal >>

Previous studies found that cows show an increase in eye white when they are scared or frustrated. In our study of 13 cows, scientists found the opposite to be the case when they are relaxed and calm. Results show the cow’s eye white to reduce when they are stroked, compared with before and afterwards.

The study involved observing cows for nearly 400 separate 15 minute periods. They filmed the cow’s eyes before, during and after they were stroked for five minutes. Afterwards the footage was analysed to record the amount of eye white that was visible throughout the observation.

Their results revealed the amount of visible eye white decreased when the cows were being stroked, leading the scientists to suggest that the visible eye whites could indicate how relaxed the cows are feeling.

World Animal Protection’s Sentience Manager, Helen Proctor said “Many people often forget that animals have an interest in feeling good, and not only being free from pain or fear. Developing measures of positive emotions in animals is really important, as it enables us to understand how they are feeling. It also helps us to know which experiences and environments make them feel good.”

Why we carried out the study

Animal sentience is of growing international concern. The scientific community’s understanding of sentience is crucial in affecting how animals are treated. These results, along with previous papers on ear postures and nasal temperatures as measures of positive emotions, prove that not only do cow’s show visible signs of pleasure at being stroked by someone they know, but that it is possible to measure positive emotions in cows.

We also hope the study will be useful for those who are working to improve cow welfare in the dairy sector by increasing our understanding of cow behaviour. Our #FullFactMilk campaign addresses the worrying trend towards intensive indoor dairy farming and the lack of information to help consumers find out if the milk they are buying is produced from these farms. We continue to champion our hard working pasture based dairy farmers and to highlight the benefits of pasture based farming.

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The study looked at whether the amount of eye white you can see in cows’ eyes can convey how they are feeling. Our science team hope to highlight how the findings provide a way of assessing positive emotions.

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