If you’ve ever seen a cow giving birth, you may have seen the cow expelling what looks like a large chunk of skin a few hours after the calf is born. This is the cow’s placenta and yes, some cows eat it.
Some cows eat their placenta, although it’s not universal behavior. Scientists aren’t 100% sure why they do this, but there are a few theories including that the placenta has an analgesic effect, the placenta is a way for the mother to boost her nutrition, and if the cow were to just leave it there it would attract predators.
In this article, we’re going to look at this interesting topic and find out if, when, and why cows eat their placenta.
What Is A Placenta, And Do Cows Eat It?
The placenta is the temporary internal organ that develops in all female placental mammals during pregnancy. It is basically like a connecting layer that allows the mother’s body to provide nutrients to her unborn calf.
Once the cow has given birth, there is no need to keep the placenta and it comes out a few hours after the calf.
Read More: Cow Calving Process Explained
Some cows do eat their placenta, but it’s not universal behavior. In some cases, farmers do not allow them to, either by removing it before they get a chance to eat it or by moving the cow soon after she has given birth. In other cases, the cow may choose not to eat it at all.
Why Do Cows Eat Their Placenta?
Scientists aren’t 100% sure why cows eat their placenta, but there are several hypotheses, each with varying degrees of supporting evidence. As with most things in agriculture, if it doesn’t directly impact the bottom line there isn’t an awful lot of research dollars spent on it.
The most common beliefs as to why cows may eat their placenta include that they eat it for its nutritional value, for analgesic benefits, to avoid the scent of it attracting predators, and because the oxytocin in the placenta helps strengthen the mother-calf bond.
Let’s take a look at each of these in some detail:
1: Placentas Are Nutrient-Dense
One reason cows may eat their placenta is that placentas are rich in nutrients. Giving birth takes a lot out of a cow and consuming the placenta is a way for them to get a small boost to their nutrient levels, which may be low after giving birth.
This is similar to how farmers feed new cow mothers colostrum. It boosts their nutrients and energy levels after a difficult birth.
There is some evidence to support this theory, since we know that placentophagy (consuming the placenta) is more common in births with multiple calves.
2: The Scent of Afterbirth May Attract Predators
Cows usually separate themselves from their herd to give birth, which is great for preventing the newborn from getting trampled but puts them at risk of predation.
Some scientists believe that cows consume their placenta to get rid of the scent of the birth, to avoid attracting any predators while there is a vulnerable calf around.
Although this sounds plausible, there is a lack of peer-reviewed research on the topic, and there are other bovids like Giraffes who do not eat their placentas despite them arguably being much more at risk from predators.
3: Placentas Have An Analgesic Effect
One potential reason for cows eating their placentas is that the placenta has analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties, which could help the mother cow recover more quickly from the pain of birth.
4: Strengthens Bond with Calf
A cow’s placenta contains the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin plays a major role in the development of trust and love. Oxytocin is also associated with the regulation of social behavior, maternal bonding, and protection. It’s sometimes called the cuddle hormone.
The mother receiving a boost of oxytocin helps cement her relationship with her calf and avoids any potential abandonment issues.
Is Placentophagy In Cows Dangerous?
Placentophagy is perfectly natural in cattle. It’s not only cows who do it, but goats, sheep, deer, and a whole list of other mammals.
In spite of this, there has been some controversy over cows eating what is essentially meat.
There are strict regulations around the world over exactly what cattle being raised for human consumption are allowed to eat, to prevent cattle-borne diseases from making their way into the human food chain.
In 2007, a woman from Taipei contracted Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (The human version of Mad Cow Disease) after injecting herself with placenta extract.
Read More: Can Cows Eat Meat?
Do Any Other Animals Besides Cows Eat Their Placenta?
Most mammals eat their placenta, not just cows.
List of animals who eat their placenta:
Notable exceptions include camels, giraffes, and humans. Nowadays, there is also a growing group who are proponents of human placentophagy, there is a lack of peer-reviewed research verifying any of the purported benefits.
To sum up, many cows do eat their placenta, but sometimes they don’t, either because they choose not to, or because the farmer cleans it up before they get the chance to.
This behavior is common across many mammals. Although hard evidence for the exact benefits of placentophagy still evades scientists, there are a few theories that seem plausible.
Some theories on the benefits of placentophagy for cattle include an analgesic/pain-relieving effect, a dense source of nutrition, a source of oxytocin, and a way for the cow to remove the scent of the birth, which may attract predators.