Bovine Friends Forever?

You don’t need to be a teenager to know that BFF means “Best Friends Forever,” and that it often doesn’t mean as “forever” as we’d like. Friendships wax and wane, despite the BFF nomenclature. But in general, life is better with your bestie. It’s more fun, everything is more memorable, etc. Friendship: It’s a Good Thing.

We typically think of it has a human thing, though — few other animals have best friends, right? Well, it turns out that cows may, too — and it may be a good thing to keep bovine friends together.

Cows are herd animals — they stick together in packs and follow each other around without much of a second thought. They’re social creatures by nature. But if you’re on a dairy farm, at first blush, having cows roam around and follow one another seems like a bad idea. There, typically, calves are separated from the herd shortly after they’re weaned, because, as Scientific American explains, “it seems easier to manage cows individually than in groups.”

But the operative word is “seems” — that may not be a great idea, it turns out. Not only are cows naturally social animals, but according to one study, they may even pair off — platonically speaking. Basically, they tend to find themselves a best friend to hang out with. And even if you’re a cow, a friend is a good thing to have with you. Right?

Well, probably. In 2011, Krista McLennan, a researcher at England’s University of Northampton tested to see if this friendship mattered. As the BBC reported, McLennan took some cows, held them in isolation for 30 minutes, and measured their heartbeats throughout. The cows were then put with an unfamiliar cow and McLennan took another set of readings. Finally, the cows were put together with their best friends, and again, McLennan measured their stress levels. The result? “When heifers have their preferred partner with them, she told the BBC, “their stress levels in terms of their heart rates are reduced compared with if they were with a random individual.”

If you’re focused on the happiness of cattle as its own goal, McLennan’s research suggests that cows should be kept with their friends. But if all you care about is their milk? The same is true. As previously noted in these pages, happier, less stressed cows make more milk. So farmers: you may want to keep cow BFFs together.

Bonus fact: Not all cow moos are the same. According to a 2006 study, reported by the BBC, “cows have regional accents.” The source of these slight changes in the mooing? It’s probably the farmer/cow relationship. Per one farmer quoted by the BBC, “the closer a farmer’s bond is with his animals, the easier it is for them to pick up his accent.”

From the Archives: Companion Companion: Why you won’t see a lonely guinea pig in Switzerland.