New Study: Social Grooming Helps Cows Form Close Friendships

Chilean and U.S. scientists spent 30 days observing a herd of cows and found that social grooming was essential to the bonding and overall happiness of the animals. The study also concluded that shuffling cows into different groups, which is standard in the dairy industry, disrupts these essential social bonds and has a profoundly negative impact on cows’ health and wellness.

The study took place at an agricultural research station in central Chile, where researchers studied 38 cows who had recently given birth. Over the course of a month, the researchers observed how the cows showed affection by licking one another on the head and neck. Lead author Dr. Gustavo E. Monti at the Austral University of Chile said:
Our results indicate that licking behavior is important to make friends and to maintain the harmony in the herd.
The researchers reported unique grooming trends that highlighted the different ways cows form relationships. For instance, cows were more likely to groom cows who had groomed them before. The cows were also more likely to groom cows of a similar age, which implies that cows prefer certain animals because they grew up together. Another interesting trend was that older cows were more likely to groom than younger cows and often acted as the “peacemakers.” Dr. Monti went on to say:
This is important because cattle form strong bonds, which offer them social support and help them cope with the stressors that occur regularly in dairy cows’ lives.
Cows used for dairy endure extremely stressful lives, and as the study shows, the disruption to their social circles only makes things worse. Cows are often separated from their friends depending on the milk they produce, their breed, and many other factors.

Cows don’t just form strong bonds with their friends—just like humans, cows and their babies are deeply attached to each other. Mother cows recognize their individual calf’s call, and studies show that mothers and babies prefer to stay close to and groom each other.

This makes it all the more agonizing that calves in the dairy industry are stolen from their mothers within hours or days of birth. Both mothers and babies exhibit signs of stress during separation, including increased heart rate and crying out, kicking, stomping, pacing, and urinating.

Cows are complex, emotional beings, but they are treated like unfeeling objects by the dairy industry. Take a stand for cows by choosing more delicious plant-based dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and ice cream. Download our free Vegetarian Starter Guide to learn how.