Cows are highly intelligent creatures, whose high level of emotional intelligence means they can feel a range of complex emotions including joy, fear, grief, and loneliness.
Cows can cry both audibly and by shedding tears and commonly cry when they are scared, lonely, or when they are experiencing grief for their lost calves.
In this article we’ll discover more about cows and the complex emotions that cause these gentle giants to cry.
Why do Cows Cry?
Cows may look fierce given their size, but they are gentle giants at heart.
In the wild, cows are herbivorous prey animals, who travel in large herds for protection, foraging the landscape for grass and other vegetation to keep them going.
Cows cry out when they are scared. Fear is a crucial emotion for cows and other prey animals because their fearful cries alert the rest of the herd to possible danger.
2. Grief (When Their Calves are Taken)
When dairy cows give birth to male calves, the calves are often removed from their mothers immediately to be destroyed or transferred to another facility to be raised as veal.
When a mother cow has her calf taken away from her, it’s common for her to feel distressed and grief stricken and for them to cry and sob, sometimes for days on end.
Research shows that cows make frequent high pitched cries when they can’t find their calves, and deeper, calmer moos when they know their calves are nearby.
The reason this happens is because it is usually not economically viable for farmers to raise male dairy cattle for beef, and since they can not produce any milk the only options for the farmer are to sell them to a veal producer or to destroy them.
Cows feel stress when they are in pain or when they are in an unknown situation.
As an example, some dairy cattle get distressed during milking.
Farmers try to keep their cattle as calm and happy as possible with plenty of feed, loads of space, fresh water, and even air conditioning to keep the cows as comfortable as possible while they are being milked.
When cows are stressed, they call out to the rest of their herd for reassurance.
Like humans, cows are pack animals and develop deep social bonds with the other animals in their herd.
Cows form strong emotional bonds with other cows (and sometimes humans too) and have cow best friends, grieve for their lost family, and have different moos depending on how they are feeling.
When cows are separated from their herd, they feel distressed and fearful and let out high pitched cries to try to locate their herd again.
Cows audibly wail when they are hungry and unable to find food. This is an evolutionary trait shared by most social animals, including humans.
The herd responds to cows wailing in the same way that humans respond to a human crying. When we see someone crying it’s in our nature to try to help them, and it’s the same with cows.
6. They Need to be Milked
Dairy cows produce milk throughout the day and need to be milked at regular intervals to avoid potentially painful conditions like mastitis developing in their udders.
Milking is a relief for dairy cows, so much so that cows who need to be milked often line up at the milking parlor!
If cows haven’t been milked recently they can become irritated and distressed.
How do Cows Cry?
Cows cry by wailing, letting out frequent, high pitched moos and by shedding tears from their eyes similar to humans.
Research shows that cows have specific moos for different situations, and cows have a distinctive “crying” moo which is higher pitched and more frantic for situations where they are distressed or upset.
Do Cows Cry at Night?
Cows don’t necessarily cry just because it’s night time, but they do tend to moo more often during the night to communicate with their herd when they can’t see them.
Cows’ night time cries can act as a warning to other cows in the herd about nearby predators, or just as a way to socialize while their herd is hidden by the darkness.
Although cows lie down through the night, they only need to sleep for a few hours so the remainder of the time they are talking with their cow friends and making sure the herd is safe.
Do Cows Cry Before Slaughter?
Though there’s little evidence to suggest that cows know they are about to die, the slaughter process can be extremely stressful for cows for other reasons and they may cry out of fear or stress.
Generally, slaughterhouses try to keep the process as calm and comfortable as possible for the cow, since high levels of stress hormones can taint the cow meat, decreasing the value of the meat.
In one well known example, a pregnant cow in China was witnessed with tears in her eyes as she was being led to slaughter. Footage of the distressed cow wailing went viral and people from across the world donated to save the cow, who was eventually rescued and sent to a Buddhist temple.
Can Cows Feel Emotions?
Cows are very emotional creatures and can feel a range of complex emotions similar to other large mammals. Cows form strong social bonds with their herds and have cow best friends.
They have special calls just for their loved ones and can experience grief, loneliness and joy.
Cows recognize their best friends and are excited to go and play with them.
While cow emotions aren’t directly comparable to human emotions, cows can absolutely feel a range of emotions.
Cows can cry, both by audibly crying out with high pitched moos, and/or by shedding tears. They cry when they are in pain, when they are scared, or when they are alone or stressed.
Cows are sensitive, social creatures who form strong connections with their families. They have best friends and special calls for each of their loved ones and can often be heard crying for days after their calves have been taken away for them, or when they get separated from their herd.
Though there have been some recorded examples, cows don’t usually cry before they get slaughtered, and when they do it’s more likely due to stress than any kind of deeper understanding of the situation they are in.
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.