Cows Personality Traits Affect How They Deal with Stress: Study

Cows as it turns out appear to have personality traits similar to humans.  New research indicates that cows’ personality traits include optimism and pessimism and that these traits affect how cows cope with stress.  The findings have major implications for factory farming and animal welfare in general.

cow sociability

Cows can be pessimistic and it affects their ability to cope with stress



New research from the University of British Columbia suggests dairy cows show personality traits like pessimism and optimism from a young age and their inherent outlook can predict their ability to cope with stress…

The study which was published last month in Scientific Reports, tested how calves that had previously been identified as fearful, sociable, pessimistic or optimistic reacted under stressful situations like being transported from one barn to another…the more pessimistic calves were more vocal and had higher eye temperatures, which are signs of stress.



A UBC study published earlier this year found that dairy calves have distinct personality traits from a very young age. Researchers from the faculty of land and food systems tested calves for pessimism, fearfulness and sociability at both 25 and 50 days old, and learned that each calf has an inherent outlook that changes little with the passing of time.


New study


Now the researchers have followed up that original study by examining those same at four months of age, to find out how their govern their reactions to real-world situations.


Transporting the animals was used to test the level of stress experienced and how the animals with various personality traits responded to that stress.
One routine procedure that can potentially stress calves is transportation. It’s novel for them, there’s a lot of handling involved, and the calves usually don’t enter the trailer by themselves but have to be pushed in. Since we had to transport those calves from one barn to another as part of our routine management, it was a good opportunity to measure their reactions to a potential stressor…
Farm often vocalize when they’re in distress. It’s a good marker of the intensity of the emotional response; the more they vocalize, the more stressed they are. Typically, the temperature in their eyes also increases when they feel threatened, because the sympathetic nervous system is activated and that increases the blood flow to the eyes. In this study we used a combination of both measures.




As expected, having information about the fearfulness trait allowed us to predict how calves reacted to transportation. What surprised us was that the pessimism was an even better predictor. The more pessimistic calves vocalized more often and had higher eye temperatures after transportation. We speculate that the more pessimistic calves have more negative expectations about any new experience.
    -Benjamin Lecorps, Ph.D./ABD, researcher


Read an interview with the study’s lead author here.


Journal reference: Benjamin Lecorps et al. Dairy calves’ personality traits predict social proximity and response to an emotional challenge, Scientific Reports (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-34281-2



You may also be interested in this:

Cows: Science Shows They’re Bright and Emotional Individuals

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