“We know that toddlers can take weeks or months to learn, but the fastest can learn in days, so the fastest of our cows were just as fast as the fast toddlers,” said Lindsay Matthews , animal behavior specialist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Cow urine can damage the environment in several ways. When cattle relieve themselves outdoors, their nitrogen-rich urine breaks down in the soil into nitrate and nitrous oxide.
These two substances come with their own problems. Nitrates seep in and pollute local lakes, rivers and aquifers. Nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
For cows that spend most of their time indoors, their urine mixes with feces to create toxic ammonia, which is problematic for the health of cows and humans, and also indirectly contributes to climate change.
Matthews a dit Bizarreries & Quarks host Bob McDonald that even getting rid of some of this pollution could have “massive implications” for the environment.
The secret of their success
Potty training for cattle is found to be very similar to how we educate human toddlers. The researchers had 16 calves as training subjects.
They first verified that the cattle had the ability to control their urinary reflex – or ‘hold it back’. They conditioned them with a collar that vibrated if they started to pee in the wrong place.
Once that was done, it was time to present their new “toilets”.
They dressed up an enclosure with green walls, soft green textured flooring, and a green sign on the door. The unique markings have helped signal cows that this is where they are supposed to urinate.
“The bottom line is to have the place of the toilet really firmly locked into their behavior,” Matthews said.
They brought the calves into the pen to make them comfortable, as if a toddler is getting used to sitting on the toilet.
The next step was to give them a delicious treat made with cereals or water sweetened with molasses when they were done to teach the cows that urinating there was a good idea.
“It was so exciting because we got the results pretty quickly in the sense that the cows showed us with a few urinations that they clicked – that the urine leads to the reward – because it was spinning halfway through. path and wait for the reward dispenser to lick the yummy and tasty treat. ”
The next step was to release the calves to an area where their new toilet was nearby, to see if they would use them on their own without any prompting. Once again, they were surprised and pleased with how quickly the cows figured out.
In 15 to 20 urinations, on average, the calves would go to the pen to pee on their own.
“Sometimes they had a little accident and we would give them a squirt of cold water, which then usually inhibited urination,” Matthews said. “Then they would usually go to the bathroom, push open the door, come in and start again. ”
He said he was impressed with how quickly they learned and that they were able to do it.
“To get to the point where you have to pay attention to your bladder filling, recognize it and then do something, inhibit the urge to urinate, walk elsewhere, go through a door and start urination again?” It’s a complex process, ”he said.
Expanding the training process
Given that there are around a billion head of cattle in the world, Matthews said the technology could easily be developed to help implement and automate this training technique for large farms.
Training cows indoors where you can set up a toilet or find ways to get them there, he said, would be less difficult than training cows that spend a lot of time outdoors.
Technology that can assess a cow’s posture for signs that she needs to pee, or that can determine if fluids are coming out, could be linked to a reward delivery system.
“We see it just as a technical issue,” Matthews said. “It’s not psychologically difficult for the animal or anything, it’s just what we did manually. “
Produced and written by Sonya buys. To listen to Lindsay Matthews’ interview, click on the link at the top.