Cows are social animals and need lots of mental stimulation, socialization, and fun to prevent them from becoming bored or stressed.
To keep themselves entertained, cows socialize with their herd, explore their pastures for new foraging spots, forage for and digest their food, and play with each other and their environment. Many farmers provide cognitive enrichment toys for their cows to play with.
In this article, we’re going to look at all the different things cows enjoy doing, why they do it, and how they play together.
Do Cows Play?
Cows do play, both with each other and with their environment.
Cows play for fun, but many types of play also have some evolutionary benefits, for example rough-and-tumble play fighting is common in all mammals and teaches young calves about pain and how to avoid it.
Do They Play With Toys?
Cows do play with toys! Cows can get bored standing around in the field all day and love playing with cow toys.
Cows love to play with balls (footballs or large exercise balls) and there have been a few viral videos of cows playing football.
Cows are naturally extremely curious, and even if they haven’t played with a ball before they will come over and investigate it until they realize it rolls around and they can chase it.
Do They Play With Each Other?
Cows definitely play with each other, especially younger cows and calves who chase each other around and frolic in the fields together.
Cows are social herd animals and everything they do has some kind of evolutionary advantage for the herd as a whole.
Cows have best friends and form complex social groups and hierarchies. Friendly cows from the same social group follow each other around and play together, exploring their pasture and looking for new food sources.
Can Cows Play Fetch?
Cows get a bit of a bad rap for being dumb, probably because they spend a long time lying down each day, and staring off in to the distance while they ruminate.
In reality, cows are incredibly intelligent and can be trained to play with humans just like dogs.
Cows can be trained to play fetch, check out this video of a cow playing fetch just like a puppy!
Do They Play Fight?
Cows play-fight with each other when they are calves, often butting horns or pushing each other with their bodyweight.
In adults, bulls often butt horns to establish dominance, however this is not the case with female herds.
In a 2013 research paper in the journal Animal Behaviour, it was found that cows organize their social hierarchy according to age, and not based on body size.
Cow social order is matriarchal, with an elder female cow usually looking after the entire herd. This unusual social order is an interesting insight into the emotional intelligence of cows and is very similar to the social order of elephant herds.
What Do Cows Do For Fun?
The concept of “fun” for a cow isn’t the same as it is for humans. While cows are super smart and emotionally intelligent, it’s not possible to directly map human emotions like fun onto cows (or other animals).
For cows, the concept of fun could be more accurately described as mental stimulation, or cognitive engagement.
Like most mammals, cows experience boredom as a biological response to a lack of stimulus. It’s nature’s way of ensuring cows are always exploring, learning, and adapting.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways cows keep themselves engaged and stave off boredom:
1. Play With Each Other Or With Their Toys
Cows are very social and engage in play, both with each other and with toys or their environment.
On farms without enrichment toys like cow brushes, cows will amuse themselves by chasing each other, exploring new areas, rubbing themselves against trees, fences, and anything else they can find.
2. Socialize with their Herd
Before cows were domesticated, they relied on their herd to provide protection from predators and to find food. Cows (and all herd animals) become agitated and distressed when they are on their own and isolated from their herd, so social enrichment is crucial to a cow’s well-being.
Cows socialize by foraging and playing together in small social groups, and by social grooming (called allogrooming).
In research from 2020 published in Frontiers Science News, it was found that cows were more likely to groom other cows who had groomed them before, and cows tended to groom cows that they had grown up with.
Cows request grooming by lowering their head in a submissive position.
Cows’ complex stomachs and digestive system allow them to digest grass and other difficult-to-digest plant materials through a process called rumination, which involves digesting and chewing the grass multiple times.
When you see cows standing in a field, staring off into the distance, they are probably ruminating.
4. Forage (Exploring & Eating!)
Foraging is a stimulating and vital activity for domestic cattle.
Cows spend around eight hours every day foraging and grazing. Cows are naturally curious and will explore their pasture land to find the best spots.
Read More: How Much Pasture Land does a Cow Need?
For cows, foraging is an egalitarian activity, with the whole herd working together to make sure everyone finds enough food.
Cows have a complex system of moos to share the location of bountiful pasture land with the rest of the herd.
To sum up, although it’s not really possible to directly map the human emotion of “fun” onto cows, they definitely take part in lots of stimulating activities which satisfy their need for cognitive engagement and socialization.
Cows play with each other as part of their natural socialization, by chasing each other and play-fighting. This type of behavior is more common in calves, whereas adult cows are more likely to take part in social grooming.
Cows have been known to play with toys like footballs or exercise balls, and cows also explore and interact with their environments, for example by scratching themselves on trees or playing with a cow brush.
For fun, cows like to explore their environments, play with each other, forage for food, take part in social grooming, and ruminate (digest their food).
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.