Cow's Ear Postures Tell Us How They're Feeling

Feeling good is important to animals, just as it is to us humans. We all have a responsibility to the animals in our care to protect their welfare, to minimize their negative experiences and to promote their positive ones. The problem is that non-human animals don't speak human, and so scientists are working hard to learn how animals do communicate.

We at World Animal Protection have been studying the ears of dairy cows to see whether cows express their emotions through their ear postures. We looked specifically at how cows hold their ears during a positive, relaxed emotional state, which we induced by stroking the cows. Stroking cows on preferred areas, such as their cheeks and neck, has been shown to calm cows down, lowering their heart rate and their cortisol (stress hormone) levels, as well as reducing their natural fear of humans. We certainly found that the cows we studied enjoyed it, as it was often hard to get research done when the cows refused to wait their turn.

We observed 13 cows over a 15-minute period, repeating this process nearly 400 times over a three-month period. Each observation period was comprised of three, five minute parts; pre-stroking, stroking and post-stroking, so that we could compare the ear postures across the three conditions. The cows exhibited four different ear postures, two "relaxed" ear postures where the cow's ears were loosely held backwards or hanging downwards perpendicular to the cow's head, and two ‘alert' postures, where the ears were either held tensely upright or forwards. All of the ear postures were found to be influenced by the stroking experience. The two ‘relaxed' postures were held for longer when the cows were stroked, and the two "alert" postures were performed for less time.

Our full paper on this research can be found on Science Direct here.An on-farm video interview describing this study can also be seen on the Sentience Mosaic, a leading resource dedicated to the science of animal sentience.

Findings like these are considered quite groundbreaking, because so little is known about positive emotions in animals. Once we have a greater understanding of how animals express themselves when happy and content, we can add these behaviors to the criteria producers and inspectors use when assessing the well-being of farm animals.

We still have more work to do, but this research just goes to show that animals do communicate in many different ways. We just need to learn how, so that we can ensure that they have a good quality of life. We hope that the findings from this research can be used by farmers to better understand the emotional state of the cows in their care.

Animal welfare should be about more than simply being free from negative experiences, or the five freedoms – i.e. the right to express natural behaviors and be free from pain, suffering, hunger and thirst, and fear. It should also take into account what is actually pleasurable for animals. By building this knowledge, we can revolutionize the way farm animals are treated.