Cows bred for food have smaller brains than their wild cousins, study shows

  • Dairy cows have brains which are 30 per cent smaller than their wild ancestors
  • Experts from University of Zurich say breeding for food has reduced brain size
  • This effect is also seen in pet dogs and horses, according to research findings
  • Study found brains of dairy cows shrunk by twice as much as bullfighting cows

Breeding cows for food has reduced the size of their brains by almost a third, scientists have found.

Dairy cows have brains which are 30 per cent smaller than their wild ancestors.

This effect is also seen in pet dogs and horses, according to researchers from the University of Zurich who say it may be due to breeding animals for docility.

The scientists analysed 317 cows from 71 domestic breeds, and discovered a pattern of smaller brain sizes in breeds with more intense human interaction and those selectively reared for obedience.

Breeding cows for food has reduced the size of their brains by almost a third, scientists found

Meanwhile bullfighting cattle, which experience no human contact except for fighting with Spanish matadors, had the largest brains, according to the study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The study found that the brains of dairy cows had shrunk by twice as much as bullfighting cows when compared to their wild ancestors.

Lead researcher Ana Balcarcel said: ‘We found that in cattle, the more human engagement they have, the smaller their brains are.

‘This is evident when we look at the way different breeds are reared. Bullfighter cattle are essentially living in “wild” conditions, except for the fact that they are protected from predators and provided with food.

‘But they have no contact until they fight in the ring. They have the largest brains of all cattle.

‘Beef cattle are much more familiar with humans, but dairy cattle are the most docile. This docility is bred into them – or, better said, the fear and aggression is bred out of them.

Bullfighting cattle, which experience no human contact except for fighting with Spanish matadors, had the largest brains according to the study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B

‘The size of this brain correlates along this same pattern. It is remarkable that this pattern is so clear and truly follows the pattern in behaviour.

‘It is amazing how and how much we impact the anatomy and behaviour of the animals we consume and care for.’

She said making inferences about intelligence and brain size are ‘far beyond’ the findings of the paper – but the results could be useful for future studies.

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