Cows' ear positions tell us how they're feeling, study finds

18 December 2014

Our new study on cow behaviour indicates that cows reveal their emotional state by the posture of their ears.

We have published a new scientific study exploring emotional states in cows. The results reveal that it may be possible to tell how a cow is feeling from the position of their ears. The study also shows that like dogs, cats and many of our pets, cows display signs of pleasure at being stroked.

The study of 13 cows by our scientists showed that when they when stroked for five minutes - an experience that put the cows into a calm and relaxed state - the cows performed either a backward ear posture, or a hanging ear posture, where the ear fell loosely, perpendicular to the head.  This contrasted with the more usual position of the ear before and after stroking of either upright or forwards.

Previous studies have suggested that ear position may provide clues to how sheep and pigs are feeling but this study is the first to look at whether cows display similar traits.  

Sentience Manager, Helen Proctor, who co-authored the study said: “Although these results need further validation using different stimuli, they do indicate that the use of ear postures may provide a quick, non-invasive and low-cost measure to assess the emotional state of dairy cows.”

“Because emotions are defined as short lasting, it is possible that ear postures may provide both an immediate indicator of the cow’s emotional state and may also be indicative of a longer lasting mood state. Understanding animal emotions is crucial if we are to improve animal welfare as emotions play a major role in an animal’s mental well-being. Research into positive emotions must therefore continue, and reliable indicators of positive emotions need to be developed and applied in practice so that animal welfare can continue to improve.”

This is just one of many studies that we carry out as animal sentience is of growing international concern and interest across many disciplines and sectors. The scientific community’s understanding of sentience is crucial in affecting how animals are treated, both in work and everyday lives.

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.

How you can help dairy cows

You can take action for dairy cows by asking your MP to support calls to reveal the number of intensive indoor dairy farms in the UK.

"Understanding animal emotions is crucial if we are to improve animal welfare as emotions play a major role in an animal’s mental well-being."
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