Experiment gives cows ability to use potty while enjoying agency

Research demonstrates that cows enjoy learning in groundbreaking experiment

Dr. Alison Vaughan, PhD, has done something groundbreaking with an experiment to potty train cows. Vaughan also gave a talk at TEDxChilliwack on the subject where she discussed the project which was facilitated at the UBC Dairy Education and Research Centre. The experiment demonstrates that cows enjoy learning while giving them a sense of satisfaction as well as the ability to use technology to improve their welfare.

“Potty training cows has the power to revolutionize the way we house dairy cattle and serves as a template as to how we can use technology to meet other challenges to production and animal welfare,” said Vaughan.

Vaughan, was born on a small island in the northwest corner of Scotland, where cows are very different from the cows found in North America, and specifically in Agassiz.

The first impressions Vaughan had of farming were romantic ones and they did not include machinery.

“I was suspicious of technology when it comes to farm animals, so six years ago when I came here to discuss dairy cattle welfare it was jarring,” she said.


The researcher has been studying animal welfare for close to 12 years now and based her research on the contrasting elements of farm animals and machinery. Animal welfare means different things to different people, according to Vaughan, who cites naturalness as high on the list of priorities.

“We want an animal to have as natural a life as possible,” she said referring to a study that was done on pigs. Participants were asked to look at two different photographs of the pigs. In one of the photographs the pig was dirty, and in the other the pig was clean. Vaughan was adamant that pigs are naturally unclean, reporting that animal cleanliness is only one part of the equation, when it comes to the overall picture of animal welfare.

According to Vaughan a vet will look at factors like health, which include things like being free of injury, free of disease and cleanliness. In the field of animal welfare, researchers will focus more on the animals’ subjective experience.

“What does that animal feel, what does it want? If I’m driving around on a sunny day and I see cows in the field, it looks nice but if we ask the cow herself what she wants, they naturally prefer to be inside out of the hot sun in a cool barn with water — when we tuck our animals in at night they’d often rather be outside laying in the cool grass,” she says.

Animal welfare encompasses a holistic approach, where several factors are employed to ensure the highest quality of life for the animals including happiness, health, and the freedom to perform natural behaviours. Dairy farmers are embracing technology to meet these needs and most farmers in the Fraser Valley are onboard with this philosophy as they employ methodologies in combination with technologies to enhance the well-being of the animals in their care.

Dairy farmers use machines like one that resembles a large mechanical brush the cows are able to activate on their own, giving them the ability to enjoy a scratching massage.

“Scratching is an important behaviour for cows, it helps them stay cleaner, while reducing parasites and they really enjoy it,” said Vaughan.

Farmers now utilize automated milking systems where milking units in the cows’ pen allow them to milk themselves. This gives the cows the ability to decide when they want to be milked, which allows them to be in tune with their natural rhythm. The relationship with the cow is then altered by the independent interaction because it allows her to have agency in her care routine.

The success of the approach was something that researchers including Vaughan wanted to transfer over to the area of of excrement.

On average, cows produce 15 litres of urine a day, and 30 kilos of feces, which means the average dairy farm with 100 cows has to deal with 1500 litres of urine and 3000 kilos of feces per day. Barns are designed to keep cows and manure separate, but some of the designs to remove the manure can cause discomfort and interrupt the natural behaviour of the cow according to Vaughan.

That’s when the idea of potty training came to light as a possible solution. A reduction in ammonia emissions, decreasing costs associated with farm labour, and the provision of a better living environment for the cows were a few of the benefits listed, along with the revolutionary idea of cognitive enrichment.

“Animals love to learn…I know that cows don’t have a reputation for being very smart but that couldn’t be more wrong,” said Vaughn of her subjects ability to think, problem solve, retain information and gain pleasure from learning something new.

When Vaughan and her fellow researchers began their foray into the world of potty training there wasn’t a whole lot of research that had been done in the field and it was wide open in terms of expectations and results. They began with a ‘proof of principle experiment’ to see if the cows were able to associate a specific location with this behaviour. The starting off point for them was urination.

“We would bring our calfs individually and we would pop them in their potty stall and we would give them a diuretic. The diuretic would make the cows urinate more quickly so they wouldn’t have to wait in there too long. As soon as they urinated we released them and they got their milk reward with the following day being a test day.”

On test days the calfs were placed in a stall while the researchers waited to see the outcome. When they urinated in the potty they were rewarded with milk and released, and if they didn’t urinate they were released into a timeout pen and were brought back in for training the following day.

The group had a star calf that was able to master and repeat the behaviour, proving their theory, that cows can be potty trained.

Five out of six calfs were taught how to use the potty and the one that wasn’t successful held the distinguished name of UBC Cage Idiot, a name that was gifted to the calf before the experiment began, perhaps proving along with calf teachability that a name carries more weight than just a thing by which something is called.

Vaughan and her group demonstrated that potty training was doable but decided that it was not practical, leading them to consider the possibility of using technology for this purpose. The next step was to team up with the UBC physics department where they designed a prototype called Interactive Camera Urination and Defecation Training Program, or I.C.U.P.

“I believe it’s only a matter of time before we have a fully automated potty training system that will allow us to train and collect automatically, reducing emissions, reducing labour and improving the lives of cows,” she said.

Technology is something that when used outside of the box has endless possibilities for problem solving according to Vaughan.

“I believe technology holds the key to restoring the balance in the relationship with the animals that produce our food and I think that is something we all have a moral responsibility to care about.”

Agassiz Observer