Cows relaxed by the voices of humans, but much prefer their presence over recordings

VIENNA, Austria — Are you a person that enjoys speaking to someone in person rather than over the phone? It turns out cows do too. A study of animal behavior reveals these gentle milk-makers prefer live interactions with humans rather than hearing voices over a speaker.

Researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Austria say replacing humans on farms with technology-based approaches don’t make bovines happy. The study finds pre-recorded messages played through a loudspeaker do not have the same impact on a cow’s wellbeing that a real life visitor does.

“Cattle like stroking in combination with gentle talking,” says the university’s Annika Lange in a media release. “In scientific contexts, a recording of a human voice speaking gently could be used to relax the animals, because it can be difficult to repeat the same phrases in the same way during experiments.”

Finding the key to a cow’s heart

Animal researchers tested their theory using voices that were as similar as possible; a technique called standardization. Their study examined how a herd of 28 cattle responded to having their hair stroked while listening to a real person talk softly or a recording speak to them.

“Our study suggests that live talking is more relaxing for our animals than a recording of a human voice,” Lange reports. “Interactions may be less positive when they become artificial through standardization”.

The results show a cow’s heart rate variability was higher when cattle heard a real person speak to them directly. This reading indicates that the animal is enjoying themselves. After the experiment, each cow’s heart rates was lower than after listening to a recording. This shows the animals are more relaxed after experiencing live interactions. Researchers add bovines, just like other animals, also display their happiness in unique ways.

“When relaxed and enjoying the interaction, the animals will often stretch out their necks as they do when they groom each other,” says Lange. “Additionally, it is thought that ear positions may indicate mood: hanging ears and low ear positions appear to be linked to relaxation.”

Study authors believe these findings can help further our understanding of animal welfare. They add that more research is needed on how cows and animals which are more fearful of humans benefit from more in-person kindness.

The study appears in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.