How smart are cows and sheep?
November 2, 2007 7:32 AM   Subscribe

Just how smart are cows and sheep anyway?

I know that it's hard enough to define and measure intelligence within our own species, so I'm not expecting a definitive and objective answer here, or even a vaguely scientific one. But if you've had any first-hand experience with cows and/or sheep, I'd love any anecdotal info you'd care to provide about how smart they seemed to you.

Feel free to use any definition of "intelligence" that makes sense to you. If it helps, my own definition of intelligence encompasses all the following areas:

* Analytic intelligence (problem solving, learning from past experience, etc.)
* Emotional intelligence (recognizing when somebody is angry, happy, etc)
* Social intelligence (having different kinds of relationships with different individuals,etc)

Again, I'm not looking for a definitive answer; I recognize that, unless you speak fluent Moo or Baa, you can't test these qualities in any objective way. I'm happy with anecdotal evidence that seems relevant to you.
posted by yankeefog to Science & Nature (39 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I grew up on a small farm, and we had a few cows and a bunch of sheep. Sheet, in particular, are really really dumb. They are terribly stupid by any measure of intelligence. Cows, I would say, are a bit smarter but not by much.
posted by lohmannn at 7:37 AM on November 2, 2007

My brother's sheep would get their heads stuck in the wheel-wells of cars if they had access. Seeing one sheep get shot in the head didn't seem to raise any red flags approaching them later in the day with a pistol in your hand.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:43 AM on November 2, 2007

Thirding that sheep are incredibly, astoundingly stupid.
posted by desuetude at 7:54 AM on November 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think cows are moderately intelligent, I'd say less bright than dogs but more bright than my brother (I kid, I kid).

When we installed an electric fence to keep them away from a newly constructed road, I noticed that only a few cows actually got shocked. The other cows learned by example and never actually touched the fence. By the second or third day, they rarely even got close.

They also seemed to me to have a dominance hierarchy and tended to cluster in similar groups (appearing to have "friends"). However, they never figured out how to open gates or get into food stores in the way that horses often do.
posted by Lame_username at 7:57 AM on November 2, 2007

this one time in hawaii, i saw these bovines tiptoe upto a cowcatcher and go supine, and roll over the damn things.

then they got up and flounced away.

yeah these ungulates, they are teh smarts.

oh and the cow hypnosis thing? totally true.

posted by sushiwiththejury at 8:01 AM on November 2, 2007

Sheep, incredibly stupid. Cows, slightly less stupid.
Goat will rule them all
posted by nathan_teske at 8:06 AM on November 2, 2007

The Omnivore's Dilemma has an interesting hypothesis that some animals developed larger brains because they are omnivorous and required more critical thinking and problem solving to feed themselves.

It seemed to make sense. Pigs are smarter than cows and sheep and pigs are omnivores.
posted by hilby at 8:12 AM on November 2, 2007

I think the origin of the term "sheeple" has strong basis in reality. Sheep will follow the flock even to their own detriment.

Then again, neither cows nor sheep are smart enough to not be food.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 8:13 AM on November 2, 2007

I was watching Dirty Jobs the other day and was amazed at how much smarter the yaks and buffalo seemed than cows.

At the local fair the goats and pigs know you are there and demand attention. Sheep and cows just stand there and take a dump.
posted by evilelvis at 8:17 AM on November 2, 2007

One summer, in my early teens, I was a cowherd. The cows I herded, Icelandic cows, seemed pretty smart. They'd generally know where they were headed without much prompting from me. They didn't get stuck places and knew not to get too close to the electric fence, lest they whiz on it. If I made mistakes, like going to the wrong pasture, they generally would stop and look at me until I figured out what I was supposed to be doing. They also had complex social hierarchies, with cows getting ostracized, different cows hanging together in groups and other whatnots. But don't mind me, Icelanders are notoriously overfond of their cows.

All that said, my experience with holsteins (the common black and white cows) leads me to believe that they're only marginally more intelligent than grass.
posted by Kattullus at 8:23 AM on November 2, 2007

The house I grew up in backed up to a farm with Cows, Sheep, and Goats. Sheep, by a very wide margin were the stupidest. Oddly they seem sort of smart as lambs, but as they get bigger they just get slow and dumb. Really, really, dumb.

Cows seemed moderately smarter. At the very least they seemed to have some sense of self preservation, which sheep definitely seem to lack.

Goats... those fuckers are pretty smart, in a sort of mean+hungry determined way. When it would get dry in the summer we'd often find them smashing down the fence to our backyard to eat the plants. I saw more than one goat in a tree(!), and I only remember having to free their heads from the metal fence in our backyard once, whereas the sheep were constantly getting their heads caught (and were often too dumb to notice until they'd managed to eat all of the ground cover within reach, at which point they'd just sort of stand there).
posted by togdon at 8:40 AM on November 2, 2007 [1 favorite]

Sheep are generally pretty stupid, as advertised. No-one has ever said "smart as a sheep" or "keen, sheep-like wit", at least not as an kind of sincere compliment. They don't figure things out - even things that should be routine. It's like every single time something happens it's a new, fresh, surprising wonder of the world to them. They find astonishingly stupid ways to injure and kill themselves. Goats look down on sheep, intellectually. Way, way, down. Although the variance in intelligence in goats is higher, the mean is higher, too.

Cattle are harder to generalize about. They aren't bright. Again, they're outclassed intellectually by most other animals you're likely to find around a farm. However, some of them do exhibit a fair amount of curiosity, which is like a prerequisite to intelligence, to my way of thinking. They're also capable of play behavior which may appear, at least, to be rather creative at times. They may play with other species, too. My experience (growing up on a farm with both beef (mostly) and dairy (a few) cattle) was that curiosity and play behaviors hit a peak fairly early on. Very young ones behave in a totally programmed sort of way. But then calves less than a year or so can be quite curious, playful, and interesting to be around. Most of them lose that as they get older, becoming absolutely dull eating-and-shitting machines in every respect. If they're socialized and treated like pets, they're more likely to retain the "intelligent" attributes. Some exceptional animals will retain them anyway. This is generally not viewed as a positive attribute from a livestock owner's point of view - a clever cow is one that figures out how to get out of fences or cause mischief of one variety or another, and a cow who is nicknamed "Curiosity" is likely to be called "Hamburger" as soon as possible.
posted by Wolfdog at 8:43 AM on November 2, 2007 [3 favorites]

While herding sheep I've often seen one sheep jump a hurdle (a wicker gate-like construction used as a temporary barrier) then after the hurdle was removed, many following sheep jump in the same spot over the now-imaginary hurdle. I haven't seen cows do that, so agree that cows are a bit less sheep-like.
posted by anadem at 8:46 AM on November 2, 2007

I grew up in rural Wyoming (not like there's really any other kind) and both sheep and cattle are painfully, painfully stupid. Sheep especially are little better than ambulatory plants. Cows do a marginally better, but not much.

Even though PETA thinks its the devil's business, docking sheep tails is necessary because they're too stupid to not crap all over their tails. A docked tail greatly reduces the chances of fly strike, which is possibly one of the grossest things I can imagine. If you don't believe follow this link, but it's rather graphic and not for the faint of heart.

Honestly, sheep are really, really stupid.
posted by Nelsormensch at 8:49 AM on November 2, 2007

It is a really close call as to whether sheep or chickens are stupider -- the amount of self-destructive behaviors that sheep will engage in because they have been bred to be so stupid is really impressive, and suggests that in fact they may be stupider than chickens, if such a thing is possible. Cows are somewhat smarter, but still pretty dumb. Cows have some individuality -- you can name them, and tell them apart by their personalities as well as by how they look; some are mean, some are sweet, etc. There are some breeds (like the Icelandic cows mentioned above, and the semi-feral ones that you see around the world) that have not had so much of their intelligence bred out of them. Goats and pigs are much smarter, more creative, lots of personality; they can make pretty good pets.

A lot of these generalizations are breed- and situation-specific. Chickens bred for battery farms are a lot less cerebral than yard chickens, which run around and eat bugs and have to deal with the occasional predator. And a lot of claims of intelligence have to do with real nuances of behavior that may not be very apparent to the outside observer -- I have a friend who keeps rabbits as pets, and she claims that they are smart and have lots of personality. Nice as they are for keeping your lap warm, I have to admit that they strike me as about as intellectual as a shoe -- I look into those eyes and just don't see much going on, whereas a cat or dog strikes me as much more engaged with the world around it. This may get at some sort of fundamental difference between predators and prey, perhaps, or just the ways we have bred these different animals over the thousands of years we have controlled their genetics.
posted by Forktine at 8:56 AM on November 2, 2007

There was a programme on the BBC several years ago (QED maybe?) that pitted pigs against dogs in an intelligence test. The pigs won by a clear margin.
posted by popcassady at 9:07 AM on November 2, 2007

Yeah, goats are smart. Sometimes they get this look, like they know more than you even. It's odd. But horses, man. Horses are smarter then most people I've met. They're awesome.
posted by lohmannn at 9:13 AM on November 2, 2007

When I was younger we had sheep, goats and a pig, I never saw any glimmer of brains or personality from the sheep but goats and pigs seem pretty smart and the goats have a rigid social hierarchy. The Head Doe would emphasize her status by sticking close to any people in the pen and chasing any other goats away and acting like she was one of us instead of one of them. Maybe the sheep are just too subtle for us to get.
posted by Iron Rat at 9:14 AM on November 2, 2007

I suspect that cows have amazing intelligence, just because they're so fucking lazy. Anything that can get out of doing any movement that's not strictly necessary has to have some kind of clever ploy in mind. Or maybe they're just too dumb to move.
posted by anaelith at 9:38 AM on November 2, 2007

I read somewhere that cows used to be intelligent but over time they have been bred to be as docile as possible.
posted by razzman at 9:45 AM on November 2, 2007

Rabbits who live inside with the freedom to roam and interact with their family (rabbit and human) are definitely smarter than ones that live their entire lives in a cage. They certainly have distinct personalities and come across as individuals, as opposed to most caged rabbits, which all seem the same to me.

My wife's grandfather had a dairy farm that was cut in half by the building of an interstate highway. The state compensated him and also built a tunnel underneath so he could still use the other half of his pasture land. The cows refused to use the tunnel until someone figured out they disliked the sound of their feet on the bare concrete. So they carpeted the tunnel and the cows had no problem with it from then on. I don't know if that makes them smart or dumb, but it struck me as surprising behavior for cows.
posted by tommasz at 10:13 AM on November 2, 2007

I know this is a cow/sheep-specific query, but so many people have mentioned goats I have to share an anecdote: I was invited into a neighbor's suburban backyard a few years back, where she kept a pygmy goat in a pen. I noticed the goat shared the pen with a two-story hutch, and on closer inspection, a bunny. So of course I asked about it.

It began with a makeshift roommate situation, the owner told me, with the goat and a former bunny. But then the bunny died -- and the goat fell into a deep depression. He wouldn't eat, wouldn't get up; just slept all day, in a pathetic goaty funk. At last, the owner bought a new bunny. And as soon as the bunny was placed in the hutch, the goat leaped up and bucked around, as happy as a... goat. True story.
posted by changeling at 10:19 AM on November 2, 2007 [2 favorites]

I disagree that cows and sheep are stupid. Well, sheep are stupid, however cows do have some admirable attributes. This does not pertain to all cows equally however.

Prior to hanging around a ranch, I was of the opinion that all cows were without a doubt, stupid beyond argument. However, I have since modified my initial opinion of them. Rancher will choose to raise cows based upon certain traits that they see as desireable. For example, one rancher may wish to have small calves so that there is less cow mortality during the birthing process, especially amongst the heifers. Another may wish to breed certain other traits of appearance, or growth rate or ability to withstand certain grass types on the range. This tends to blur your original question somewhat in that they are not in their native state having had outside forces impose their will on them.

However, for cows as an example of what I would deem natural co-operation, one cow might stay back and babysit 6 or 8 calves while the other mothers go off and graze. The babies stay close, maybe play a bit, but the sitter keeps an eye on them. If a calf bawls in alarm, then all the cows around will move in and investigate, but especially the mom. I don't know if other herd animals do the babysitting thing, but I found it kind of touching.

New mothers tend to be a bit on the stupid side. Some will be over protective but at the same time not too aggressive (those are the ones you want to keep) and others will trample their babies or abandon them. Those tend to the "canner".

Interestingly, moms are very particular of their calves scent. If a calf dies, a milking mom won't take another calf. The only way to save a twin in a situation like this is to spray a "no-scent" on the starving twin and mom him to the bereaved mother and hope she is fooled.

Definitely a docile cow is an easier animal to deal with, especially if you have to doctor a calf or a cow because they got their hoof caught in barbed wire or have an infection.

Docile cows is one of the reasons that the wolves in Wyoming got such a bad rap. We remove the cows horns, breed them to be docile, and remove as many predators as possible. Then, when a predator is re-introduced, there will be conflicts between ranchers and the critters trying to survive.

Also, I am long winded.....
posted by fox_terrier_guy at 10:25 AM on November 2, 2007

I have very little sheep experience, but from talking with cousins that raised them they all concur sheep are dumb.

I have experience working with small herds of cows that my family has, and I find them a bit endearing and "cute" like people have described. Especially when you have a calf that hasn't become scared of casual human contact. They're a lot like puppies and want to run and play with you. In fact, I'd almost describe the cows I've worked with as being mentally challenged Labrador Retrievers. They can be very stubborn and hard headed, act slow, but in general are curious and don't mind being around people. A lot of times this can change come branding time - that's usually their first introduction to "humans are bad" when you're searing their skin with a hot iron. A lot of times after that experience they like to keep a 50 foot distance unless they feel you have food or there's a fence in between you.

But, since my family has a small herd, they get a fair amount of human interaction and attention. So the herd will come when called, are very curious about your shoes, clothes, and any new objects you have - they'll lick and try and chew stuff. If you approach slow you can interact with them - they just don't like sudden movements since that triggers their flight response.

I'd say the only thing they might learn from past experience, though, is driven by food. So they know routes between fields, where to go to get fed, times of feedings, etc. If they find a hole through the fence or a weak spot, it's usually only found when they see some tasty grass on the other side. In fact - this sort of behavior...along with some associated human behavior...really annoyed my father-in-law. He used to get calls all the time from people in a new neighborhood saying his cows are on their lawn. Well, come to find out, people were dumping their lawn clippings over the fence of the pasture that bordered this new neighborhood - presumably thinking they were giving the cows a treat. Well, the cows got wise that all this grass came from somewhere, so they constantly found weak spots in the fence to get over to the yards these grass clippings came from. So in that sense I say "dumb people" not "dumb cows."

I doubt they have any capacity to recognize emotions in people like dogs might. And the only change in social interaction I've seen is if the person approaching them is the normal feeder or someone else.
posted by JibberJabber at 12:03 PM on November 2, 2007

dunno about sheep, but these two articles about the intelligence of cows made me give up beef forever (and i love steak).

elvis, the world's smartest cow
posted by thinkingwoman at 12:12 PM on November 2, 2007

When I was in Chile I met a bunch of cows on a ranch, and they seemed very individual to me - I was there when the ranchers were branding the 1 year olds, in a ring the old fashioned way, and it seemed to me that each animal responded in its own manner. Some of them were scared, some rebellious, fighting back, some acted more resolute, allowing the ranchers to do what they were going to do - it seemed really clear that they were each personalities. I also had the opportunity to meet a few of them by the fence at other points, and they seemed really cool to me - calm, but not stupid.

I think the fact that cows have been "companion animals" in a ritualistic sense, not just as working creatures, in a number of cultures (some northern tribes of africa, and parts of india, for instance) is evidence that it isn't rare for human beings to relate to them, though it may be a different kind of relating than, eg, the dogs or goats we think can work out what they want or need. (in Chile the dogs were left to scrounge outside like strays, not taken seriously as friends).

Temple Grandin wrote quite a bit about what she thought of cow minds in her writing about the beef industry, as she related to them especially.
posted by mdn at 12:51 PM on November 2, 2007

If you want to talk about animal stupidity, domesticated turkeys take the prize hands-down. I grew up in a town where the FFA was the largest extracurricular school activity, and all the kids raising turkeys had to be particularly careful during rainstorms. The rain hitting the turkeys on the head would cause them to look up with their beaks open, at which point they would drown from rain going down their throat.
posted by ga$money at 1:14 PM on November 2, 2007

Treat that claim about the turkeys with some skepticism unless you've actually witnessed such a thing.
posted by Wolfdog at 1:22 PM on November 2, 2007

The smartest “cow” I ever met was a Brama bull. All the others had their brains bred down to walnuts, but they still had cow intelligence. You just had to learn to mosey to appreciate it.
posted by Huplescat at 4:44 PM on November 2, 2007

And let's not forget that in India there are urban cows (excellent name for a rock band). You gotta have some smarts to make it in the big city.
posted by Kattullus at 11:07 PM on November 2, 2007

The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow
posted by plokent at 1:06 AM on November 3, 2007

Sheep, as people have noted, have suffer from no surplus of intelligence. You can train them to a certain extent, though. I like them.

Cows are pretty intelligent. Probably as intelligent as mice. They have a social hierarchy, and they're good learners. They can even remember what time of day something is supposed to happen, almost down to the minute.

The cows refused to use the tunnel until someone figured out they disliked the sound of their feet on the bare concrete. So they carpeted the tunnel and the cows had no problem with it from then on.

Wow, tommasz, I've heard that story before, although I'm not sure where.
posted by zennie at 2:42 AM on November 3, 2007

Thanks, everybody! There's a ton of really helpful and interesting answers. I have somewhat arbitrarily marked some as best, but it's been a really interesting and helpful thread for me.

In case you're wondering why I asked--like Thinkingwoman, I am uncomfortable eating creatures of a certain level of intelligence. (I don't claim this as any sort of universal moral principle--it's just my own particular preference.)

I know from first hand observation that dogs are too smart for me to be comfortable eating them, and fish are dumb enough that I have no qualms. But I've never interacted with cows or sheep, so I wasn't sure which way to go.

Having read these responses, it sounds like cows meet my (admittedly arbitrary) threshold of intelligence, and are therefore safe from my cooking pot--but sheep had better watch out.
posted by yankeefog at 7:38 AM on November 3, 2007

Wolfdog: Treat that claim about the turkeys with some skepticism unless you've actually witnessed such a thing.

Fair enough. But my friends still brought their turkeys in when it rained for exactly this reason, so either my friends were dumber than turkeys or based on first-hand experience they thought turkeys dumb enough that the threat of drowning didn't sound unreasonable.
posted by ga$money at 7:41 PM on November 4, 2007

Late to the thread, but: I grew up partly on my grandparents' farm, where we raised Charolais and Angus cattle, with a couple of Guernseys for milk.

Curiosity is a sign of intelligence, and cows are very curious. If you're driving through their pasture, they will come and surround your car and investigate it thoroughly. If this happens, you can't stop the car or they'll never let you leave-- you just have to keep driving, very very slowly.

Cows will follow you if you're walking, too. I have looked around to see an entire herd in a sort of phalanx behind me. When you stop and look at them, they stop too, and stand still looking surprised. When you start walking again, so do they. If you get freaked out and start running, they will chase you enthusiastically. I don't know whether this is the herd instinct at work or evidence of a sense of humour.

With apes and monkeys, it's said that those who live in larger groups have larger brains. I don't know if this is true of cows, but within the herd they certainly have a social structure, as fox_terrier_guy noted.

Hope this helps.
posted by Pallas Athena at 8:49 PM on November 28, 2007

Thanks, Pallas Athena!

Did you ever try the singing-to-cows thing, from the article that Thinkingwoman linked to?
posted by yankeefog at 2:01 AM on November 29, 2007

A late entry: seems sheep aren't too stupid afterall.
posted by popcassady at 7:12 AM on November 30, 2007

Hm. I'm not really sure what to make of that.

Based on the other (admittedly anecdotal evidence), I'm going to conclude that Lottie is a rare freak of nature, rather than representative of her species.
posted by yankeefog at 8:42 AM on November 30, 2007

Well, no, sheep aren't completely stupid. Really, most domestic animals can show a surprising amount of intelligence if you look closely enough. But sheep minds are really heavily dominated by the flocking, uniformity, and fight-or-flight instincts, so in every-day situations they don't always do so well.
posted by zennie at 9:46 AM on November 30, 2007

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