British Columbia

Cows like scratching an itch just as much as they like food: UBC study

Everyone knows the satisfaction of having an itch scratched and researchers at the University of British Columbia say cows appear to feel the same way.

'You know what it's like to have an itch in those hard-to-get places'

A cow uses a scratching brush in this undated handout photo. Researchers at the University of British Columbia say dairy cows want to use a scratching brush just as much as they want to access fresh feed. (Benjamin Lecorps/UBC Animal Welfare Program via the Canadian Press)

Everyone knows the satisfaction of having an itch scratched and researchers at the University of British Columbia say cows appear to feel the same way.

A study from the university's animal welfare program found dairy cows want to use a scratching brush just as much as they want fresh feed.

Marina von Keyserlingk, one of six co-authors of the report, said cows living in a natural setting use trees and other abrasive surfaces to scratch themselves. But when they're kept in a barn, scratching is almost impossible.

Tests show cows pushed for a scratch

A scratching brush looks similar to a small bristled roller in a car wash. When the animal steps into or under the brush, it automatically begins rolling.

While researchers found that the cows liked using the brush for an average of seven minutes a day, they weren't sure how important it was to get that scratch.

Researchers say they aren't sure why the cows like to groom themselves. It could be to get rid of dirt or just because they get itchy. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

The researchers used a preference test for the cows and it showed they were willing to push through a weighted barrier to gain access to the brush just as much as they were willing to push through for fresh feed, von Keyserlingk said.

"You know what it's like to have an itch in those hard-to-get places,'' she said. "So this allows them to really groom those hard-to-get places.''

Von Keyserlingk said they found the brush appeared to help the cattle reduce stress.

"For me, what I also think about is if she's super itchy and she can't alleviate that itch, it could be that she could be really frustrated,'' she said. "We don't know what a frustrated cow necessarily looks like, because we haven't really looked in this context, but it could actually improve her emotional state.''

Brushes should be standard: researcher

Published in the journal Biology Letters on Wednesday, the study says in some countries, including Denmark, providing cows with access to resources that promote coat care is mandatory.

"Cattle with access to mechanical brushes are clean and spend about fivefold more time grooming compared with when brushes are not available, suggesting that these brushes are important to the cow,'' the study says.

"I think brushes should be part of standard management practice, standard housing systems,'' von Keyserlingk said.

She said they aren't sure why the cows like to groom themselves. It could be to get rid of dirt or, just like most mammals, they get itchy once in a while.

In the past, science has tended to focus on animal welfare by looking at all animals, but von Keyserlingk said that this study looks deeper.

"We know that not all animals are identical and so I'm really interested in this individual variation. Because it's the individual animal that has the ability to suffer. So looking at these types of things, we can get a better insight into individual differences.''

She couldn't say whether adding brushes to a barn might increase milk production, but it could make the cattle more comfortable.

"I think that there's a growing body of evidence now that having these brushes is good for the cows,'' von Keyserlingk said.

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