Cows are not dumb by any stretch of the imagination. Cows are intelligent creatures with a high capacity for complex emotions, great memories, and greater levels of perception and spatial awareness than humans.
In this article, we’re going to look in detail at cows’ intelligence, exploring what makes them so smart and how their intelligence differs from that of humans, and dispelling the unfortunate myth that cows are dumb or stupid!
Are Cows Smart?
Yes, cows are smart! Far from being the simple grazers they are often thought of, cows have hierarchical social structures, with best friends and long-lasting familial relationships.
Cows have good problem solving abilities, are capable of complex communication, have high levels of perception and spatial awareness, and also possess great memories.
How Smart are Cows?
Cows are smart, but just how smart are they?
To understand cows’ intelligence more, let’s look at what makes an animal intelligent and see how cows measure up.
1: Emotional Intelligence
Cows have very high levels of emotional intelligence. Cows are emotional creatures with the capacity to feel complex emotions like joy, love, happiness, grief, regret, loneliness, and boredom.
Read More: Do Cows get Lonely and Bored?
Cows can recognize their friends by their silhouette, or by their unique moo! Cows can even form strong attachments to humans, just like a dog.
Cows form lasting social bonds with their friends and family members, and familial groups form hierarchical bonds with other groups within the herd.
2: Spatial Intelligence
Spatial intelligence refers to the ability of an animal to be aware of and to understand their surroundings.
An animal with no spatial awareness simply follows a learned behavior and does not amend their behavior based on their perception. Cows are very aware of their surroundings at all times.
They can see in the dark, and have a complex system of night time mooing to keep the entire herd safe from predators.
In ‘The Psychology of Cows’, published in the peer-reviewed Animal Behavior and Cognition Journal, researchers found that cows’ memories were so great that they could remember the location of their feeder after six weeks, after only five days of training.
Further anecdotal evidence from farmers testifies that cows’ memories are so great that they can even distinguish the individual engine sounds of different vehicles, and thus understand the difference between a passing truck, and the farmer delivering feed.
Perception refers to an animal’s ability to see, smell, taste, feel, and hear their environment.
Cows’ perception is excellent, even surpassing humans in a few categories.
Combined with their high levels of social intelligence and egalitarian societies, cows developed their high levels of perception to keep the herd safe, and to find water, food, and shelter.
- Cows have twice as many taste buds as humans
- Cows can see in the dark!
- Cows have a much wider range of audible frequencies than humans
5: Social Learning
Social learning is what allows animals to learn from other animals, thus avoiding lengthy and dangerous trial-and-error methods of learning.
Research shows that cows share the same social learning abilities as other highly intelligent vertebrates including humans, dolphins, chimpanzees, orangutans, and elephants.
What Do Cows Think About?
Cows are often thought of as simple grazers, aimlessly staring into the distance chewing on their grass, however that couldn’t be further from the truth.
While they might not be contemplating the nature of their existence, research shows that cows have the capacity to form complex thoughts and emotions. Cows can feel joy, hope, regret, and grief.
We also know from cows’ actions that they also have some level of self awareness and can both look forward to future events, and grieve for past events. Cows line up in anticipation at milking and feeding times, and dairy cows wail for days on end when their calves are sent to be slaughtered.
Read More: Fear and Grief in Cows
Are Cows Stupid?
Cows are not dumb or stupid. Like all animals, cows have evolved to possess the necessary level of intelligence for their survival. For cows, this means high levels of social intelligence, communication, spatial awareness, and perception.
Cows don’t have strong problem-solving skills, because solving logic problems simply isn’t required for continued survival of their species. Some people might say that makes them stupid or dumb, but really it just means they have exactly what they need.
How Smart are Cows Compared to Other Animals
Cows are comparable in intelligence to other large herd mammals like elephants, horses, buffalo, giraffes, and bison.
While cows lack some of the logical reasoning of some other animals including great apes and cephalopods, they have high levels of perception and spatial awareness, great memories, emotional intelligence, and complex social societies.
Are Cows Smarter than Horses?
Though horses are generally thought of as more intelligent, cows and horses are comparable in terms of intelligence.
Cows can be used for riding and working the land just as well as horses can, although cows are typically slower than horses.
Are Cows Smarter than Dogs?
Cows typically have a larger brain than dogs, and their intelligence is comparable. Cows are just as smart as dogs.
All animals adapt to humans depending on how we interact with them. Dogs have been our loyal companions for up to 40,000 years. They are well adapted and socialized to humans and work well with us, which can sometimes make them seem more intelligent than they are.
Where cows have been raised from birth to live with humans, cows exhibit the same affectionate and playful behavior as a puppy, and they grow up just as loyal, loving, and intelligent as a dog.
Are Cows Smarter than Pigs?
Like cows, pigs are highly social, intelligent creatures. In spite of their smaller brain size, pigs are generally considered to be smarter than cows.
Pigs’ brains are larger than cows as a percentage of their body weight and because they eat meat, pigs have a large prefrontal cortex similar to humans and other great apes, which give them the power of reasoning and self awareness.
According to Candace Croney, professor of Animal Science at Purdue University, pigs are very fast learners and are capable of logical reasoning, have excellent memories, and can even be deceptive.
To sum up, cows are intelligent creatures and are definitely not dumb or stupid.
Cows’ intelligence is perfectly matched to their environments. They have particularly high levels of social and emotional intelligence, which is vital for any large herd animal.
In some areas, cows’ intelligence even surpasses that of humans, especially in the areas of perception and spatial awareness.
It doesn’t always make sense to compare cows to other animals, but in general cows share a similar level of intelligence to other large herd mammals, including horses, buffalo, and bison.
Cows lack the intelligence of carnivorous mammals like humans, chimps, and pigs, whose enlarged prefrontal cortex gives them advanced logical reasoning abilities and self awareness.
Although cows are usually seen as less intelligent than dogs, this is simply because dogs are usually brought up around humans and become more directly intertwined in our lives.
Stuart is the editor of Fauna Facts. He edits our writers’ work as well as contributing his own content. Stuart is passionate about sustainable farming and animal welfare and has written extensively on cows and geese for the site.