Udderly brilliant: Chewing for cognition

If you’ve ever walked past a dairy farm, you’ve probably seen a cow or calf doing something pretty similar to this picture below.


While it looks like this calf is just sticking its tongue out at you, in person it certainly looks like the animal is a little bit crazy. In motion, it looks like they ate a peanut butter sandwich earlier and can’t quite get it all out now. This behavior, tongue-rolling, can extend itself to many other surfaces as well—maybe you’ve seen a cow sucking relentlessly on a bar, or a chain, or even another cow (much to that cow’s annoyance).

Many farmers are frustrated by these behaviors. When cows try to eat things that aren’t food, like metal poles or rusty chains, their chance of getting sick skyrockets. It also creates some pretty irritating repetitive noises. Having worked at a barn where all of our cows quickly learned that violently sucking on the metal bars of their gates would make them smash loudly back and forth like a metallic drum set, I can assure you that hearing those constant clangs at 3 in the morning every day gets old very quickly.

Now imagine anywhere between 10-100 of these girls doing this at the same time….it gets loud!

If this is such a bad behavior, then why do cows do it?

This type of behavior is known as a stereotypic behavior, which is basically just an uncommon repetitive behavior seen in many species. Lions pacing at a zoo, hamsters flipping in their cages, or humans, and are commonly seen in species that have historically spent large portions their time grazing and foraging but are now restricted from doing so. They are commonly thought to indicate poor conditions for the animals – largely frustration and boredom – but in reality, it is often the opposite!

Have you ever decided to have a clean eating day, and opted for a smoothie for lunch instead of a sandwich? But then to your healthy-eating horror, afterward you realize that despite being full, you’re still craving something else to eat? Just something else to snack on? If so, then you probably have way more in common with those calves above than you thought.

Humans and cattle both have a history that involves a lot more chewing than either of us do nowadays. For humans, that’s our own fault. Prior to cooking our foods, we had to chew raw food for a much longer period of time to be able to actually swallow and digest it. As we can now cook our foods and get the nutrients out faster, we chew less than we’ve had to throughout our evolutionary history. For cattle….that’s also our fault. Cattle have been domesticated over thousands of years, and for much of that time they would graze all day on pasture, and thus would spend the majority of their day chewing. Once animal production started intensifying, however, feeding became controlled – both to increase production past what would be possible on just pasture and to help keep animals safe and healthy. This process meant that cows were not only moved off of pasture-feeding, but they were kept on limited diets, fed at specific times per day, and fed specific amounts meant to meet their energy needs and maximize their production.

While this feeding method works extremely well for satisfying energy and metabolic goals and keeping cows healthy, it inadvertently creates the same challenge that you face when you drink your calories in the form of a smoothie instead of eating them: for a species used to chewing for long periods of time, being denied that opportunity creates a strong motivation to chew something—anything!

This increased chewing motivation can actually help cattle adapt and survive better in domestic situations. Chewing has a ton of benefits on brain development, like improved memory, increased arousal, and increased cognition. In humans, chewing gum is analogous to these mouth behaviors performed by modern dairy cows. In both cases, no one is gaining nutritive benefits or satiation but we are activating the mouth in a manner similar to chewing, maintaining the high cognitive function that was previously provided by our all-day foraging and eating behaviors. In cattle, this also allows them to better adapt to their environments by predicting and planning for changing situations, giving them a measure of control over their worlds.

So next time you’re feeling stressed, or are struggling to remember an entire quarters-worth of material for a final, try taking a cue from cattle and chew some gum—no matter how strange or uncoordinated you may look while doing it!


Author Blair Downey is a second-year student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group. 

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