Just as I got done posting an essay earlier today on how African grey parrots suffer from social isolation and loneliness, my friend Valerie Belt sent me a report of a fascinating study that showed that cows need friends to socialize and to learn especially when they are young. Charlotte Gaillard, who works in the Animal Welfare Program at the University of British Columbia, and her colleagues Rebecca K. Meagher, Marina A. G. von Keyserlingk, and Daniel M. Weary, published a research paper called "Social Housing Improves Dairy Calves' Performance in Two Cognitive Tests" in which they report that living alone "impairs cognitive performance in dairy calves." Unfortunately, dairy calves are often confined alone in tiny cages and show signs of stress.
Concerning this most important research project the authors write, "The aim of this study was to determine the effects of individual versus social housing on two measures of cognitive performance: reversal learning and novel object recognition. Holstein calves were either housed individually in a standard calf pen (n = 8) or kept in pairs using a double pen (n = 10). Calves were tested twice daily in a Y-maze starting at three weeks of age. Calves were initially trained to discriminate two colours (black and white) until they reached a learning criterion of 80% correct over three consecutive sessions. Training stimuli were then reversed (i.e. the previously rewarded colour was now unrewarded, and vice-versa). Calves from the two treatments showed similar rates of learning in the initial discrimination task, but the individually housed calves showed poorer performance in the reversal task. At seven weeks of age, calves were tested for their response to a novel object in eight tests over a two-day period. Pair-housed calves showed declining exploration with repeated testing but individually reared calves did not. The results of these experiments provide the first direct evidence that individual housing impairs cognitive performance in dairy calves."
Cows are not robotic milk machines: welfare concerns of social isolation
The researchers also note that further research is needed to assess how the emotional state of the calves influences learning because it's known that fear and anxiety impede learning in humans and other animals. The calves might also be bored. Regardless, there are welfare concerns that need to be addressed because these animals are not simply robotic milk machines nor should they be treated as if they are. The scientists write, "Dairy cattle are faced with many challenges as part of their routine management, including changes in feeding environment, social regroupings and interacting with new technologies including robotic milking equipment and automated feeders. Individuals that are more flexible might adapt more quickly to these changes, improving the lives of the animals and the farmers that work with them...Social housing for calves may result in animals that are more flexible in their responses to changes in management and housing."
Cows also need one another for friendship and love. At sanctuaries they can display who they are - emotional and sentient beings with varying personalities–and they can also make friends. Consider "Sweety and Tricia from Farm Sanctuary–the two blind cows that became best friends after living 350 miles apart...They are the perfect testament as to why it is so important for cows to have friends, not just for learning, but for love."
Stay tuned for more on the fascinating lives of animals. The study of African greys and this one on calves show that there are hidden effects of social isolation that can have wide ranging effects.
Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also), and Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also). Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence will be published fall 2014. (marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)