The Emotional World of Farmed Animals

In today’s world, few people could interact with farmed animals in the way we interact with companion animals. The scope of these animals’ emotional world might surprise you!

Jul 5, 2023By Chelsea Pinkham
emotional world of farmed animals

Farmed animals’ general role in our society is to produce food or clothing for humans. Even those who get the chance to interact with farmed animals typically care for them in a group setting, rather than as individuals. Additionally, 99% of farmed animals in the United States currently live in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), commonly referred to as “factory farms”. To distance us even further, an estimated 68% of Americans live in urban areas. It’s no wonder our experience with these animals is lacking.

Farmed animals have rich social lives

Cows socializing (1)
Image credit: Canva

From chickens, turkeys, and ducks to sheep, goats, pigs, and cows, every common farmed animal species is highly social. All being prey animals, they rely on social cooperation and herd or flock instincts to stay safe. All herd and flock animals have social hierarchies or “pecking orders”, with each animal playing a complex role in the family dynamics. With social ability generally comes facial recognition- herd and flock animals must be able to distinguish one another by sight or scent.

Animals living in group settings must also have some form of social communication, whether through vocalization or body language, to avoid conflict and live cooperatively. Chickens, for example, have at least 24 known vocalizations. They even have separate calls for aerial versus terrestrial predators! These brainy birds have also proven to be able to recognize around 100 individual faces, meaning that being kept in highly crowded conditions is stressful for them and impairs their social lives.

Sheep can memorize the faces of around fifty of their herd mates. Vocal behavior in pigs is so detailed and complex that studies have shown they can create social hierarchies while blindfolded; relying entirely on sound and smell.

Cattle can memorize human faces and develop fearful associations towards humans who have been cruel to them previously. Play is something most mammals engage in, and farmed animals are no exception. Cows are thought to begin engaging in play behavior around two weeks of age, and this behavior increases when cows are released into the pasture from confinement.

Farmed animals experience a range of emotions

Fearful piglet
Image credit: Canva

Today, most people can agree that animals are capable of experiencing simple emotions such as joy or fear. But what about more complex emotions such as empathy, altruism, uncertainty, frustration, or boredom? Of course, different species vary drastically in their ability to perceive and experience emotions. But the emotional range of farmed animals might surprise you.

“Emotional contagion,” or the spread of emotional response from the individual to the group, is considered to be a trait associated with empathy. It’s generally associated with socially complex animals, such as primates, wolves, and pigs. Evidence shows us that cows also experience emotional contagion, with positive emotions and negative emotions like stress and fear.

Cognitive bias, more commonly known as optimism or pessimism, demonstrates how our past experiences shape our perception of the future. Sheep who have experienced aversive or frightening stimuli in the past prove less likely to approach new objects. Sheep with positive histories tend to be more curious and bold. The same findings are consistent in calves who have been separated from their mothers. Just like humans, a history of bad life experiences can lead animals to become pessimists.

Maternal instincts are strong in these animals

Hen and chicks (1)
Image credit: Canva

With highly social animals and herd or flock living comes a strong ability to socialize and bond with one another. Even stronger is the maternal instinct so many farmed animals display towards their young. Mother pigs will “sing” to their nursing piglets with long, drawn-out, soothing grunts.

A calf quickly learns the sound of his or her mother’s voice and can distinguish the “moo” of his or her mother from quite a distance. Perhaps one of the most impressive maternal connections among farmed animals is that of a mother hen and her unhatched eggs. Mother hens turn their eggs several times a day, carefully tending to the needs of their unhatched eggs.

A hen will cluck gently to her eggs as she sits on them and tends to them. Astonishingly, just a few days before the chicks hatch, the eggs begin to “talk back”! Soft peeps will begin to sound from the egg when the chick is fully developed and preparing to enter the world. The peeping becomes increasingly frantic just before the tiny chick pecks open the eggshell and sees his or her mother for the first time. A hen will teach her chicks everything there is to know about being a chicken, sharing every morsel she finds with them and using her body to keep them warm. “Mother hen” is a saying for good reason; there are few animal mothers more fiercely protective than a hen of her chicks.

Public perception plays a role

Chicken eyes (1)
Image credit: Canva

A 2015 study involved roughly one hundred Animal Science students given the opportunity to train chickens. Using positive reinforcement, the students taught the birds a variety of behaviors, including pecking a target to receive a treat, discriminating between similar targets, and more. Student perceptions of chicken intelligence were assessed pre-training and post-training.

Before the training began, the students mostly viewed chickens as slow learners without the capacity to experience complex emotions. After a session of chicken training, the students’ attitudes shifted to viewing them as intelligent and emotional animals with individual personalities. Before the training, most students agreed that chickens could feel hunger, pain, and fear. Post-training, it was the students’ consensus that chickens could likely also experience boredom, frustration, and happiness. The moral of the story? The more we take the time to inform ourselves about animal cognition and behavior, the more likely we are to treat animals with empathy and respect. This is one of many reasons why animal behavior research is so important!

Chelsea Pinkham
By Chelsea Pinkham

Chelsea is an animal advocate, rescuer, and aspiring rewards-based dog trainer. She is a Fear Free Certified Pet Professional with over a decade of animal experience. Chelsea has worked at animal shelters, sanctuaries and with many private dog training clients. She immerses herself in canine behavior education as she pursues her CPDT-KA dog training certification. In her spare time, she trains dozens of fun tricks for her and her partner’s rescued adventure cat, Iggy!