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Cows’ body language tell their emotions

Last changed: 21 December 2018

Investigating cow body language is a first step towards a reliable method to assess emotional states in cattle. Researchers from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences mapped the body language of cows in three everyday situations; while eating, using a mechanical brush, and queuing for the milking robot.

Principle component analysis of 3700 observations of ear and head position and tail behaviour in 72 cows showed that body language in these situations was clearly different. Their body posture during feeding was ears back up and neck down, with tail wags directed towards the body. During queuing, their ears were mainly axial and forward, the neck below the horizontal and the tail hanging stationary, and during brushing their ears were backwards and asymmetric, the neck horizontal and the tail wagging vigorously. Placing these findings into an arousal/valence framework allows predictions of how these postures change in other situations previously demonstrated to vary in valence and arousal. This could contribute to the identification and validation of behavioural indicators of how positively or negatively cows experience other activities, or situations, and how calm or aroused they are.

Link to publication


de Oliveira D, Keeling LJ (2018) Routine activities and emotion in the life of dairy cows: Integrating body language into an affective state framework. PLOS ONE 13(5): e0195674.


Linda Keeling
Professor at the Department of Animal Environment and Health; Animal Welfare Unit                                                        

Telephone: 018-671622