What do cows think?

Photo by Ryan Song on Unsplash

As a retired veterinary surgeon of 80 years I remain baffled by this conundrum. There is no doubt in my mind that some animals do think. There is no question that they feel pain but that is an experience not a thought. Do they say to themselves “Ouch! That hurt!” when I stick a large needle into them? They certainly understand but is that thought? Dogs understand commands, dolphins react to their trainers’ instructions and there have been several instances of young children falling into the enclosures of a silverback gorillas which have nursed their bruised bodies until human help relieved him of the responsibility. Were they thinking?

Don’t get me wrong, far too many people confer human thought and emotion onto animals. The correct term for this is anthropomorphising them. This kind of person arrives back home later than expected to find that the dog has been caught short in their absence and is creeping towards them in apparently abject humiliation.

“Little diddums knows he has done wrong, doesn’t he?”

Does he? The last time he saw a puddle of fluid on the kitchen floor when the master walked in he got punished. He did not necessarily associate the pool of liquid with himself but with the situation, and therefore shows submissive behaviour to his returning owners who interpret his behaviour as guilt.

Thinking, understanding, reacting and communication all have different interpretations. I do not imagine a cow considering the Descartes dictum “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am) while grazing the clover — to start with the animal is probably as unfamiliar with Latin as we are with “cow language” — but it will recognise the farmer opening the gate and may think “Milking time already? Seems a bit early.” Is that thought or just conditioning?

We have had dogs that have travelled a hundred miles with us on the back seat of the car, apparently fast asleep, and yet a couple of miles from home she is up and ready for dinner at home. Maybe they recognise the local countryside flying past the window? Possibly, but I think it is more likely to be the result of the dog’s acute sense of hearing. It recognises the cadence of the tyres on the roads near home in the same way that we recognise the National Anthem even if we only hear the first three bars.

We cannot begin to understand how dog’s experience life with hearing that can detect sounds at twice the frequency that human ear can detect. On the other hand hearing is not just about frequency. Humans are better at localising sound than dogs and we can detect lower frequencies of sound which we perceive more as feeling than hearing. The hearing range of a young human is reckoned to be between 20 Hertz and 20,000 Hertz while the canine range is between 67Hz and 45,000Hz. To put this into perspective rumbling thunder ranges between 5 and 220Hz; human conversation lies between 80 and 8000Hz while the songs of hummingbirds rise as high as 12,000Hz. Blue whales communicate at very low frequencies across hundreds of miles of ocean — it used to be 1000 miles in the 1940s but human noise pollution has diminished their range.

To communicate surely means that they must have ‘thought’ to construct the information. If whales can think, why not cows and if they ‘think’, what about fish? We have all seen magnificent underwater images of shoals of fish which form huge shapes to deter predators. A shoal of a hundred thousand herring will move as one being to create these shapes. Who decides the shape and when to change it?

I cannot believe that there is one head fish that decides shape and action of the shoal so the shoal must act as an individual in the same way that the individual coordinates the actions of its brain, back, arms and legs to serve a tennis ball. The tennis player thinks about where he wants to place the serve but I cannot conceive the notion of a shoal of fish “thinking” about the changing geometry of its shape.

To complicate the conundrum we must ask whether emotion is part of the thinking process. Here is no doubt in my mind that animal not only show the outward signs of grief but experience the emotion. In my early days as a veterinary surgeon I would suggest to the owner of two dogs, one of which I had to put down, that the survivor should be isolated from the euthanasia. Later research at the Royal Veterinary College in London showed that a survivor “grieved” less if it had been allowed to see the body of its late companion. Dogs and cats that had not seen the body were seen to be searching for its lost partner often for several months. In the light of this research, I changed my advice to the owners in these situations to allow the remaining pet to investigate the dead body by sight and smell. Many of these experiences bordered on the uncanny. The living ‘half’ would investigate for a few minutes and then resume its normal life, fetching its lead for its customary walk at that time of day.

But let us get back to “thinking”. What is it? Thinking has been described as manipulating information, as when we form concepts, engage in problem solving, reasoning and make decisions. … A thought may be an idea, an image, a sound or even an emotional feeling. So a pig may decide that it would be a good idea to move into a field shelter to get out of a cold wind; a peregrine falcon may see an image of a field mouse from two miles away and think “That’s my next meal”; a bat’s hearing will echolocate sounds beyond the comprehension of the human ear while a herd of elephants will appear to mourn the death of one of their number. Are they thinking?

Wait a moment. This is taking the interpretation of thought a bit too far. The echolocation of bats is a physical ability which does not necessarily imply thought and there is another creature whose hearing abilities far exceed even those of bats. That is Galleria Mellonella or the greater wax moth which is capable of hearing sound frequencies of up to 300kHz compared to the human’s 20kHz and even my weirdly imaginative mind cannot get round the idea of moths actually thinking.

Cuttlefish can rapidly learn from experience and adapt their eating behaviour accordingly. A new study by Pauline Billard, a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Caen, has shown that when they know that shrimp — their favourite food — will be available in the evening, they eat fewer crabs during the day. This capacity to make decisions based on future expectations suggests complex cognitive abilities.

Leaving the concept of bat thoughts behind for a moment, let us consider the expression or sensation of emotions. Do grief, happiness, fear, anger, trust and surprise imply thought? I have seen my patients apparently exhibit every one of these feelings but I have no idea whther this implies thought.

Let me have your thoughts.

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Retired veterinary surgeon now a collector of trivia. Married to a wonderful wife, four children and four grandchildren. Author of A Veterinary Life on Amazon.

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Adrian Arnold

Adrian Arnold

Retired veterinary surgeon now a collector of trivia. Married to a wonderful wife, four children and four grandchildren. Author of A Veterinary Life on Amazon.

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