Are Cows Smarter Than Dogs? (2021 Update)

Are Cows Smarter Than Dogs

A lot of people are surprised to learn that some farm animals are as intelligent as beloved pets like cats and dogs. Cows especially tend to be seen as rather stupid, with their usually slow movements and their big trusting eyes. But according to a great number of studies, cows display an amazing amount of cognitive abilities. This leads many to wonder:

Are cows smarter than dogs? All things considered, dogs and cows are of roughly the same intelligence. They both form bonds with other humans and animals and can remember them, and they can both be trained to perform certain actions for a reward. The difference in how they are perceived results mostly from the fact that a lot of people keep dogs as pets and interact with them on a daily basis, while cows play a much smaller role in most people’s lives. 

Cows are known to have quite complex social interactions. Not only do they form friendships and cliques, but a herd of cows also works according to a multifaceted social hierarchy. Cows that are newly introduced to the herd have to “network” and get to know various members before being fully accepted. They are also known to remember things like faces or directions for a long time.  

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How Smart Are Cows?

A study from the University of Cambridge has found out that cows even enjoy learning – when they have learned something new or have solved a problem they display excitement by wagging their tails, jumping, and running around happily, not unlike dogs do.  

In a test done at the University of Sydney, cows were trained to solve mazes, like lab rats or mice often do. They learned to connect a certain sound with the promise of food and then followed this sound through a maze. This process showed their abilities for decision making and their executive function.

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Their progress showed that they learned and understood what they had to do – at the beginning, they just randomly turned corners, but soon they were observed to turn their heads in different directions, trying to locate the sound and pondering the right decision.

The cows in the study were tested four times a day for four days straight, and most of them worked up to a perfect score! A lot of human students would envy this ability to get a perfect grade after four days of studying. There was even one outstanding cow that nailed the test on her very first try in just 20 seconds! This impressive feat shows how the levels of intelligence can vary greatly between individuals. 

Aside from their ability to make decisions and learn, cows are also known to display a great amount of emotional intelligence. When cows are separated from their babies, they mourn by crying and bellowing. Their cow friends recognize their distress and try to support and comfort them.  

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Cows are very social creatures and it has been shown repeatedly that cows that have been kept in isolation perform worse in tests of their intelligence than their counterparts that have been reared in groups. 

Do Cows Bond With Humans? 

Yes, they do! Cows do not only form friendships with other cows, they can also develop affections for human animals. They can distinguish and remember human faces, and have been reported to happily greet visitors they have not seen for six months or more. Aside from their friends, cows also remember the faces of those who hurt them and are known to carry grudges. 

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Are Cows Smarter Than Dogs
Are Cows Smarter Than Dogs

Are Prey Animals Stupid? 

When searching for information on the intelligence of prey animals like cows, it is easy to come across opinions that argue that herbivores and prey animals are stupid per se, since they do not have to hunt and track their food and mostly do not stand a chance in a fight with a predator.

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Is that true? Of course not. Just like hunters like wolves or lions, herbivores that live in herds like cows or sheep are perfectly adapted to their needs, and just because they do not display the same kind of behavior, this difference in the kind of their intelligence does not equal a difference in the degree of intelligence.

Just because a predatory carnivore has a more active life than a cow that can literally eat the ground it stands on, does not necessarily mean that the former automatically excels in tests regarding its cognitive abilities. 

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Adrian Volenik

I've lived around animals my whole life and I hold a Diploma in Animal Physiology. When I'm not reading or writing about wild animals, health and fitness, and technology, you can find me playing with my son and two cats. My pastimes include running, playing video games, and solving the NY Times crossword.