Learn Something New About Cattle!

Learn Something New About Cattle!

Hundreds of thousands of cattle (cows, calves, heifers and bulls) have been used for science in NZ

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 1989.1

Why so many cattle are used in science

Sadly, they are used extensively in research aimed at trying to sustain, enhance and make more money for the animal agriculture industry.

For example, researchers use them to:

  • Try and decrease their negative environmental impact. 
  • 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). 
  • Try to find more “humane” slaughter methods - these experiments are as grim as they sound and can involve throat slitting and stunning. 
  • Test the effects and safety of chemicals and animal remedies, including medications and fertilizers.
  • Research ways of increasing milk or muscle (beef) production.


Cattle are incredible animals. They aren't 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. 

These four-legged, gentle giants are seriously misunderstood…

Fun facts about cattle

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!


This adorable video from the Dodo shows a very happy heifer playing fetch with her human mum!


Cattle 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.3

Cattle have oval pupils and can see in the dark

Did you know cows have pupils that are oval instead of round like ours? A bit like a cat, only that the slit in their eye is horizontal.4 You don’t normally see it, as most cattle have brown eyes.

Cattle have excellent night vision! They, again like cats, have an additional layer behind the eye’s retina reflecting light back.5 This is what makes their eyes glow in low light!
They are no experts in colour, having only dichromatic vision,6 but are able to distinguish herd mates from strangers by their faces.7 They can tell humans apart, too.8


Cattle are more emotionally complex than you think!

Cows form strong bonds with their babies9 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!10 

Herds are tightly knit networks of relationships, with different cliques and connections,11 that females almost exclusively manage.12

Being groomed by a friend slows down their heart rate considerably (makes them calmer).13 They also look to their peers for reassurance in stressful situations14 or to learn which plants to eat.15

Young cattle play in many different ways,16 including social play.17 And much like us, they are less inclined to play when they are feeling unwell.18

They are individuals with strong personality characteristics.19 Depending on their lived experiences, they can be quite pessimistic.20

Calves unsurprisingly have a serious sweet tooth,21 but might also enjoy salty tastes, and the preference variation is bigger with higher concentrations and older age.22


Cattle are smart

Cattle can discriminate not only between geometric shapes,23 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.24

Once learned, they can retain the memory of a task for a year without any reinforcement.25

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.26 



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1. https://www.mpi.govt.nz/dmsdocument/51508-Statistics-on-the-Use-of-Animals-in-Research-Testing-and-Teaching-in-New-Zealand-in-2020 

2. Budras, K. D., Habel, R. E., Jahrmärker, G., Richter, R. & Starke, D. (2003). Bovine Anatomy. Schlütersche Verlagsgesellschaft. ISBN 3-89993-000-2

3. Phillips, C. (2010). Cattle Behaviour and Welfare. Second Edition. Blackwell Publishing Company. ISBN 0-632-05645-2

4. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0042-6989(00)00113-9 

5. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1439-0264.1986.tb00713.x 

6. http://doi.org/10.1017/S0952523898153154 

7. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-010-0361-6 

8. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0168-1591(97)00061-0 

9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2014.12.003 

10. https://doi.org/10.1016/0304-3762(82)90177-8 

11. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1439-0310.2009.01708.x 

12. https://doi.org/10.1006/anbe.1994.1346 

13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2010.12.003 

14. https://doi.org/10.1016/0168-1591(90)90077-Q 

15. https://doi.org/10.2307/4002819 

16. https://doi.org/10.1038/1731081b0 

17. https://doi.org/10.1016/0304-3762(78)90092-5 

18. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.008 

19. https://doi.org/10.1163/156853905774539346 

20. https://doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0098429 

21. https://doi.org/10.1016/0031-9384(94)90301-8 

22. https://doi.org/10.2527/jas1970.312364x 

23. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0003-3472(81)80017-6  

24. https://doi.org/10.3168/jds.S0022-0302(97)76092-2 

25. https://doi.org/10.1111/asj.12210 

26. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2003.11.007