Cows are intelligent, social creatures capable of feeling complex emotions like fear, grief, and loneliness, but do they even understand the concept of death, let alone a slaughterhouse?
Although cows don’t necessarily know that they are going to be slaughtered, there is some evidence that cows feel fear just before the slaughter process, and we know from their grieving wails that they have learned that their calves and friends never return after the slaughter truck takes them away.
If you’re anything like me, you like to know where your food comes from. The idea of an animal suffering unnecessarily just to feed me is heartbreaking and recently I’ve been wondering about how or if cows suffer in their final moments and what we can do to ease their suffering.
In this article, we’re going to look more deeply at what exactly cows understand about the slaughter process and try to work out the limits of their capacity to understand death and the nature of their existence.
Do Cows Understand Death?
Cows are emotionally intelligent and are capable of feeling complex emotions like grief and loneliness.
All animals have deep-seated survival instincts, and while they may not be able to contemplate the meaning of their existence, there is plenty of evidence that intelligent animals like cows understand the finality of death and are capable of grieving after a loss.
In a 2008 study, scientists from the University of Bristol in the UK set out to find out the extent to which animals ponder their existence. It was found that cows lack the ability to plan for the future, outside of basic learned behavioral patterns.
The study postulated that cows “live in the moment” and don’t think too much about the future, however, we know from anecdotal evidence that they certainly mourn and grieve when one of their herd disappears.
In 2020, Australian farmer Autumn Weppner’s story of a grief-stricken mother cow went viral. According to the story, the mother cow was wailing, pawing at the ground, and gasping for air, as her calf lay dead in a creek. This behavior carried on for several days.
Similar stories from all across the dairy industry exist, especially when a male calf is immediately removed and sent to be slaughtered for veal. The mother cow often bawls for days and days for her baby.
Read More: What is Baby Cow Meat Called?
Do Cows Know They Are Food?
While cows are super smart and are capable of feeling complex emotions, they do not have the mental capacity to understand that they are being raised for food.
In 2017, researchers from Florida State University conducted a literature review on the psychology of cows. Their research found that cows have only a rudimentary ability to understand object permanence. In simple terms, this means that cattle don’t always understand that when an object goes out of sight, it still exists.
While this may not seem like a big deal, this specific cognitive ability is a required foundation for more complex and abstract thoughts, so we know from this that it’s not possible for cows to think abstractly about the world and their place in it.
Another way we know cows don’t understand that they are being raised for food is by looking at the strong bonds cows form with farmers. If cows really understood their situation, they wouldn’t be so friendly towards their captors.
Related Article: Are Cows Dangerous And Aggressive?
Do Cows Know What Happens To Them?
Cows aren’t fully capable of understanding what happens to them when they get taken away to be slaughtered, but there is ample evidence that shows the cows that are left behind can feel grief, fear, and loneliness when they see their friends or family disappearing.
Cows don’t understand the nature of their situation, but they are social creatures and they do understand the immediate effects of what’s happening around them, even if they don’t understand the bigger picture.
The best evidence for this is the dairy industry, where dairy cows cry for days on end after their calves are removed. Since cows must be kept pregnant to produce milk, they eventually learn that every year they give birth, and every day someone comes and takes their calf away.
Read More: When Are Cows Too Old To Breed?
Do Cows Get Scared Before They Are Slaughtered?
There is some evidence that cattle become stressed and scared in the moments leading up to their slaughter, however, the fear is usually because of a new, noisy, and unknown environment and not because they have any understanding of their situation.
The most well-known scientist in the field of humane cattle treatment is Dr. Temple Grandin, who is responsible for the design used in more than 50% of abbatoirs in the United States.
According to Dr. Grandin, cows are no more scared of a slaughterhouse than they are of a veterinary chute (a tool used to keep cattle in place during veterinary examinations) or a feeding chute, although all three situations do cause slight levels of stress, cows clearly do not understand their fate or slaughterhouses could not operate.
There is also a commercial incentive for abbatoirs and slaughterhouses to keep the cattle calm and relaxed as much as possible, since stressed cows have more cortisol in their bodies, which degrades the quality of the meat.
In spite of all this, there are still some situations where it’s clear that the cows do get scared before they are slaughtered. In a video from Spain that went viral last year, a calf is very distressed, obviously terrified, as it hears the screams of its family and the smell of blood around it in a Spanish abbatoir.
This type of video is heartwrenching, and hammers home the need for us to treat our animals with compassion and to design our slaughterhouses with as much comfort in mind as possible. This video was shot in the EU, which has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world.
Related Article: What Happens to Old Dairy Cows?
In conclusion, cows generally don’t know that they are going to be slaughtered, and they don’t have the mental capacity to understand that they are being raised for food.
This is because cows lack the ability to form complex and abstract thoughts, as evidenced by their lack of object permanence, a type of cognitive ability which relates to understanding the physical world.
Although cows generally don’t have a grasp of their situation, cows are very perceptive and abbatoirs and slaughterhouses can be an extremely stressful environment if they aren’t designed well.
For the most part, farmers have a vested interest in making sure cows don’t suffer before their death, because stress hormones reduce the quality of the meat produced.
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.