How Much Does a Cow Like a Good Scratch?

Cows certainly know how to scratch an itch. Doug McLean/Shutterstock

We humans will do just about anything to scratch an itch that's in a hard-to-reach spot. We've made backscratchers, we'll rub up against thresholds, just about anything to feel that "Aaaahhh, that's the spot!" moment.

Cows, it turns out, aren't much different, according to a study published in the journal Biology Letters. In fact, cows will do almost as much to seek out grooming options that provide a sense of relief as they will to gain access to fresh food.

And it's particularly true when the cows don't have easy access to such things, like if they're in a barn all day.

Anything for a good brushing

Cows can groom by licking themselves and each other. Their tongues, however, cannot reach all the right places, so they turn to other options, like tree bark or other rough surfaces. This process provides them with a way to remove parasites and other undesirable materials from their skin and fur.

If these natural surfaces aren't available, they may turn to whatever surface best scratches the itch. This can cause damage to the barn, which means money must be spent on repairs. One way to alleviate that potential destruction is by supplying the cows with access to a mechanical brush. The device basically looks like a brush in a car wash. When a cow steps close to the brush, or rubs up against it, the brush begins to whirl, providing the cow with a way to groom.

Cows seem to enjoy having access to such brushes. According to the study, cows with access to such brushes are cleaner and spend about fivefold more time grooming than barn cows without access to such brushes. This, the researchers suggest, signifies the importance of the brushes to the cow.

If that doesn't convince you, then maybe this calf getting worked on by a brush will.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) decided to test just how important access to these brushes were to cows. Ten healthy pregnant cows were given a few days to get used to an experimental pen and a brush. They were also trained to open a 15-pound (7 kilogram) weighted push gate, and they had to eventually be able to do so without a trainer present. The gate restricted access to either an empty space, a space with a mechanical brush or a space with fresh feed. Weight was added to the gate each day it was used until none of the cows could open it. This was done in order to determine how much effort a cow would exert to gain access to a certain area.

Cows were willing to push almost the same amount of weight to access fresh feed as they were to gain access to a mechanical brush. They were, no surprise, less interested in pushing their way into an empty space.

Happy cows

Photo: koi88/Shutterstock

"The way I see a cow move under that brush goes way beyond just relieving that itch," Temple Grandin, a researcher at Colorado State University, known for her work on farm animal behavior and welfare, told The New York Times.

"What they don't have is a gigantic cortex that can do things like fly to the moon or build that gigantic computer you’re using right now," said Grandin, who was not involved in the study. "I'm going to say the dairy cow enjoys it. It's like going to the spa."

Access to these brushes are required by law in Denmark, but they're entirely optional in Canada and the U.S. One of the UBC researchers, Marina von Keyserlingk, suggested to The Times that giving cows access to the brushes could make them happier, which in turn could make consumers of cow-based products happier, knowing that the cows were happy.

"If you can get industry to take charge and they can adapt these best practices, they're much more nimble than legislation," von Keyserlingk said.