Many people are unaware of the extent to which cattle (cows, calves, heifers and bulls) are used for science. In New Zealand, cattle were the most used animal for science in seven out of the ten years from 2010 – 2020. This equates to hundreds of thousands of cattle. In 2020 alone (the most recent data we have) 46,937 cattle were used for science in New Zealand. In fact, cattle (along with mice and sheep) have been in the top four most commonly used animals for research, testing and teaching purposes in NZ since 1989.
Why are so many cattle used in science?
In short, they are used extensively in research aimed at trying to sustain, enhance and make more money for the animal agriculture industry. This sadly makes sense when you consider how widely they are exploited for their milk and their bodies. For example, researchers use them to:
- Try and decrease their negative environmental impact. This can include putting the animals in respiration chambers and researching ways to reduce methane produced in their digestive system.
- Find ways to increase the survival rate of calves until they are sent for slaughter or decrease their cost.
- Try and “improve” their genetics, including genetic manipulation to insert desired traits into their DNA (for example, to change their milk composition).
- Research different diseases, which often involves making the animals sick on purpose. This includes studies into lameness causes and treatment, mastitis (common infection of the udder in dairy cows) and fungal and parasitic infections.
- Try to find more “humane” slaughter methods – these experiments are as grim as they sound and can involve throat slitting and stunning.
- Research different types of pain relief for standard procedures in the animal agriculture industry (i.e. dehorning, castration, C-section)
- Test the effects and safety of chemicals and animal remedies, including medications and fertilizers.
- Research ways of increasing milk or muscle (beef) production.
For some research, cattle are fistulated, meaning a hole is cut into their flank, creating a permanent opening into the rumen (the biggest of their stomachs). This hole is then plugged with a rubber fistula that can be opened to take samples.
In additional calf exploitation, calves and calf foetuses are killed, and the blood is drained from their bodies to be used in other research.
Note – this is not a comprehensive list. For more details and referenced examples of how cows are used, see the case studies section on the NZAVS website.
Cattle are NOT machines or lab tools
Cows, calves, heifers and bulls are all incredible animals. They are not plants that we can grow and harvest, machines that we can fuel up to get a product at the end, and they aren’t lab tools that we can use in harmful experiments.
Cattle are emotionally complex
Cows form strong bonds with their babies that last well beyond a year and continue even when another calf is born.
The friendships they make with other cows can be maintained over years.
Herds are tightly knit networks of relationships, with different cliques and connections that females almost exclusively manage.
Being groomed by a friend slows down their heart rate considerably (makes them calmer). They also look to their peers for reassurance in stressful situations or to learn which plants to eat.
Young cattle play in many different ways, including social play. And much like us, they are less inclined to play when they are feeling unwell.
They are individuals with strong personality characteristics. Depending on their lived experiences, they can be quite pessimistic.
Calves unsurprisingly have a serious sweet tooth, but might also enjoy salty tastes, and the preference variation is bigger with higher concentrations and older age.
Cattle are smart
Cattle can discriminate not only between geometric shapes but also the same shapes differing by size. With the latter, calves seem to be much more eager to learn and “play” than adult bulls, who sometimes were simply not in the mood.
Once learned, they can retain the memory of a task for a year without any reinforcement.
Separate from a food reward, heifers have shown signs of “emotional reaction” to completing learning tasks. In other words: they were excited by their achievement.
Other fun facts about cattle
They eat quickly and chew later. Cattle have no upper incisors, just a dental plate in the front upper jaw. They use their tongue to grab a bunch of grass and pull it over the lower incisors to cut it. They then swallow it and regurgitate it later and chew thoroughly while lying down, which can take up to eight hours of their day.
They have oval pupils, rather like a cat, only that the slit in their eye is horizontal. You don’t normally see it, as most cattle have brown eyes. They also have excellent night vision! Again like cats, they have an additional layer behind the eye’s retina reflecting light back. This is what makes their eyes glow in low light!
They are no experts in colour, having only dichromatic vision, but are able to distinguish herd mates from strangers by their faces. They can tell humans apart, too.
Cattle can be cuddly, and have been known to play with each other, with other animals and humans and even with balls and other toys. They can be goofy and can be taught tricks – they’ve even been known to play fetch with people!