10 Things You Didn't Know About Cows

Cows in a field stand next to a wooden fence as the sun sets

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Cows, besides humans, are the single most common species of mammal, so it's safe to say that sometimes they fade into the background of our lives. With big, vacuous eyes, a slow gait, and a generally unhurried demeanor, cows don't get credit for much except their economic role as a source of meat and dairy products. But the truth is, there's a lot more to cattle than you might think. They are intelligent, highly social animals, and are even honored as sacred creatures in some parts of the world. Here are 10 facts about cows that will make you appreciate these gentle giants once more.

1. Cows Originated in Turkey

Two brown and white cows with small horns lie down in a field
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Domestic cows, also known as taurine cows, are descendants of wild oxen known as aurochs, and they were first domesticated in southeast Turkey around 10,500 years ago. A second subspecies, sometimes called zebu cattle, were later domesticated in a separate event around 7,000 years in India. While the wild aurochs went extinct in 1627 due to overhunting and habitat loss, their genetics live on in a number of descendants, including water buffalo, wild yaks, and of course, domestic cows.

2. Female Cattle Are Called Cows, and Male Cattle Are Called Bulls

In the English language, we generally have a single word that we can use to refer to both the male or female of a species — like cat or dog. But cows are unique in that we don't have a singular noun that refers equally to an adult cow or a bull; we just have the word cattle, which is plural. That said, in colloquial usage, cattle are often referred to as cows.

3. They Are Highly Social Animals

Cows prefer to spend their time together, and some research has even shown that cows have favorite friends and can become stressed when they are separated from one another. In a study measuring isolation, heart rates, and cortisol levels, researcher Krista McLennan found that female cattle had lower heart rates and lower cortisol levels when with a preferred partner compared to a random cow.

In addition to enjoying socialization with fellow cows, they also fare better when they are treated well by humans. Researchers have found that if you name a cow and treat her as an individual, she will produce almost 500 more pints of milk a year. Not only are these cows more productive, but they are happier, too — the increased milk output is linked to lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone associated with negative feelings.

4. Cows Are Good Swimmers

A herd of cattle with horns heads into a body of water
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Cows might not seem like they would take to water, but any cowboy could tell you that cattle can swim. In fact, "swimming cattle" across a river is a traditional skill that ranchers and farmers have developed for generations, allowing them to move cows between pastures or even across the country. Even without a farmer herding them, cows will wade into ponds and lakes to cool down and escape from insects in the summer.

5. Cow-Tipping Probably Isn't a Real Thing

Many people swear by their stories of tipping over cows in the middle of the night, but experts assert that these storytellers are bending the truth, not tipping cows. In 2005, University of British Columbia researchers concluded that tipping a cow would require an exertion of 2,910 newtons of force, meaning it would take more than human strength to actually push over a cow. If you still need more evidence, consider what the experts do when they need to get a cow on its side — use a table.

6. Cows Don't Sleep Very Much

A brown and white cow lies in the grass in front of a backdrop of snow-capped mountains
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Cows spend 10 to 12 hours a day lying down, but most of that is well-earned relaxation time, not sleep. In fact, an average cow will only sleep about four hours a day, usually in short increments throughout the day. Sleep studies have also shown that, like in humans, lack of sleep can affect a cow's health, productivity, and behavior.

While on the subject of slumber, it's worth noting that, unlike horses, cows do not sleep standing up and will always lie down before dozing off.

7. They Are a Sacred Symbol in Hindu Culture

A cow on the street with a dab of pink paint on its forehead
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The animal is considered a sacred symbol of life, and cows in Hindu-majority cultures often roam the streets freely and take part in holiday traditions. In some cases, there are laws to protect cows from harm. The strictest of these are found in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where punishments for killing a cow include seven years of prison time, and politicians have formed a "Cow Cabinet" to ensure the welfare of the animal.

8. They Are One of the Biggest Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions

When cows digest food, fermentation results in a large amount of methane; cattle produce 250 to 500 liters of the gas per day, and it's a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Livestock is responsible for 14.5 percent of all emissions, and beef and dairy cattle outpace all other livestock as methane emitters. Since the majority of the 1.4 billion cows on the planet are raised as livestock, reducing our consumption of meat and dairy products has been proven as an effective way to combat global climate change.

9. They Can't See the Color Red

The old adage that bulls charge when they see the color red is simply not true. The color doesn't make them angry; in fact, cows are colorblind by human standards and don't even have a retina receptor that can process red hues. To a raging bull, a bright red cape just looks like a dull yellowish gray. When a matador convinces a bull to charge, it is likely the movement of the waving flag or cape that elicits the response, not the color.

10. Cows Only Have One Stomach — With Four Compartments

While it's often said that cows have four stomachs, that's not technically true. Cows actually have one very big stomach with four distinct compartments that each serve a different function. This complex digestive system allows the cow to better process the 35 to 50 pounds of grass and hay they consume on a daily basis. It's in the second part of the stomach, called the reticulum, that cows produce cud, a taffylike substance that cows will burp up and continue chewing to finish their meal.