Skip to main content

The researchers found that, like humans, some cows are extroverts or introverts.ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

Mood swings, angst and identity crises are rites of passage to becoming a teenager, but humans aren’t the only sufferers, it seems. Adolescent cows go through mood shifts just like teens, new research from the University of British Columbia has shown.

Researchers at the school’s Animal Welfare Program conducted a study to identify the development of personality traits over the lifetime of a cow. They found cattle temperament remains stable at a young age and during adulthood, but it goes through fluctuations during puberty.

“It’s important to identify the animals who are struggling to cope. They are not all the same but have differences in personality types. Individuals should matter,” said Marina von Keyserlingk, a professor at the UBC Animal Welfare, and the lead author of the study published in the Royal Society Open Science journal.

The study, which took four years to complete, also included UBC professor Dan Weary and former UBC PhD students, Heather Neave and Joao Costa.

The team monitored calves and cows over the course of time to record their behaviour. They were consistent in their personality during the rearing period between one month to three months and as an adult between one year to 2.5 years.

However, the same cows showed mood fluctuations between six to eight months as a result of puberty when they were reaching sexual maturity, not dissimilar to teenagers as they go through hormonal changes.

The researchers also found that, like humans, some cows are extroverts or introverts. Some are more assertive while others are shy, and that remains consistent throughout their lifespan.

Prof. von Keyserlingk said the cows’ behaviour was classified by two types: the bold ones, those that were assertive in personality; and the exploratory ones, those that were more fearful, shy and reserved.

“For it to be a personality trait, it must be consistent,” Prof. von Keyserlingk said, further explaining that the researchers monitored cattle in different scenarios to see how they reacted to new situations, new humans, new objects and new environments.

During the study, some cows immediately approached the humans or explored their environment, while others were reserved and remained stationary. Prof. von Keyserlingk said this is a common test to determine personality traits in farm animals.

Cows experience fluctuation in their personality because they are going through major changes in their body, including hormonal and growth rates.

Prof. von Keyserlingk added cows and humans aren’t the only ones that experience changes in personality around puberty: squid, fish, hens and mammals such as hamsters and mice also have fluctuations.

This study is significant because it demonstrates personality traits, which can be a useful factor in determining when animals are most productive or otherwise on the farm during different growth stages.

“Here we use science to improve the lives of animals on the farm. It would be nice to tweak management practices based on personality traits and identifying who those animals are,” Prof. von Keyserlingk said.

Additionally, the reactions of the animals to different situations reflects how they will react to various events on the farm. In an earlier study, the team observed that cows that were more fearful of humans tend to eat less and produced less milk.

Prof. von Keyserlingk hopes to continue researching on this subject.

“This type of work needs lots of patience. Animals need to grow,” Prof. von Keyserlingk laughed.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.