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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2022

Dairy cows did not rely on social learning mechanisms when solving a spatial detour task

Stenfelt, Johanna; Yngvesson, Jenny; Blokhuis, Harry; Rørvang, Maria Vilain


As herd-living animals, cattle have opportunities to observe and learn from others. While there is evidence of simpler processes of information transfer in cattle (social facilitation and stimulus enhancement), true social learning mechanisms in cattle remain largely unexplored. This study aimed to investigate if dairy cows possess cognitive abilities to acquire new behavior through social learning in a spatial detour task. Thirty-two dairy cows (ages 2-9 years) participated in the study. A food reward was placed behind a U-shaped formation (4x2 m), allowing the cows to see but not reach the reward without first detouring around the obstacle. The U-shape provided two routes (approx. 18 m walking distance) to the reward, of which one was used for demonstration. Two cows were demonstrators and 30 cows were divided into two groups, assigned as either observers of demonstration (n=15) or controls not observing demonstration (n=15). Cows had three attempts (trials) to solve the task. Response variables were: success, latency to reach the reward, concordance in choice of route to detour, and time spent facing the test arena before each trial started. The study found no significant differences in success or latency between observers and controls, although observers spent a greater proportion of the time before trials facing the test arena. However, successful observers tended to be faster than successful controls. Individual cows were generally consistent in their choice of route, and cows choosing the demonstrated route were significantly faster than cows that did not. Success in solving the task decreased over trials, likely due to decreasing food motivation. Age had a significant effect on success in 2nd and 3rd trials, with younger cows being more successful. The lacking effect of treatment on success suggests that the age effect may be explained by a higher motivation, rather than social learning. Adding to the sparse knowledge of social learning in farm animals, these results indicate that cows did not utilize social learning mechanisms when solving the detour task. Future research should focus on clarifying whether cattle possess cognitive abilities necessary for social learning, as well as if /when social learning is a primary strategy.


cognitive task; Cattle; Animal Welfare; Social transmission; Animal learning; Cognition; bovine; Mental abilities

Published in

Frontiers in Veterinary Science
2022, Volume: 9, article number: 956559