New Study Finds Cows All Have Unique Moos to Express Their Feelings

Researcher Alexandra Green and her team hope their findings inspire farmers "to tune into the emotional state of their cattle, improving animal welfare"

Cows in a field
Photo: Getty

On Friends, Joey Tribbiani taught viewers that a cow’s opinion is “moo” — and in a roundabout way, he was actually right.

A study published last month in Nature’s Scientific Reports found that cows’ “voices are individually distinct,” and that “they’re able to maintain these individual characteristics across the contexts,” lead researcher Alexandra Green (a PhD student who conducted the study out of the University of Sydney) told Atlas Obscura.

Researchers looked at a herd of free-range cows in New South Wales, Australia, and were able to gather more than 300 communication recordings from more than a dozen of the animals.

The recordings included noises the cows made during “positive” contexts — like right before meals — as well as “negative” situations, such as not being given food as anticipated or “during physical and visual isolation from the rest of the herd,” a statement from the university explains.

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Cow in a field

Researchers concluded, the study reads, “that a variety of source and nonlinear-related vocal parameters are responsible for encoding individuality in Holstein-Friesian heifer high-frequency calls.”

“Further, by using robust classification methods, we showed that heifers can maintain this individual distinctiveness across putatively positive and negative farming contexts,” the researchers added in their paper.

“We suggest that salience to individuality in cattle high-frequency calls assists with the recognition of familiar conspecifics in the herd,” the conclusions continue. “We recommend that farmers integrate knowledge of these cues into their daily farming practices for cattle welfare or production improvements.”

cow in a field
Cow out to pasture. Getty

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In her conversation with Atlas Obscura, Green said that “increasing herd sizes” in the dairy industry without enough attention to the animals’ individual needs inspired the five month study, explaining, “We need to think of novel ways to look at their welfare.”

“We hope that through gaining knowledge of these vocalizations, farmers will be able to tune into the emotional state of their cattle, improving animal welfare,”she added in the statement on the university’s website.

“Cows are gregarious, social animals. In one sense it isn’t surprising they assert their individual identity throughout their life and not just during mother-calf imprinting,” Green continued in the latter statement. “But this is the first time we have been able to analyze voice to have conclusive evidence of this trait.”

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