Scientists Gave Sober Cows a Drunk Walking Test

Scientists Gave Sober Cows a Drunk Walking Test
A somewhat accurate representation of how the study was conducted. (Illustration: Diego Perez-Lopez, PLOS, CC-BY 4.0)

Veterinary researchers in the Netherlands and Sweden made cows walk a straight line, all the while recording their movements through motion sensors. Far from trying to identify the drunkards in the group, the scientists actually hope their research can one day help farmers better identify cows with potential health problems that affect their gait.

According to the study, published Wednesday in PLOS-One, the researchers wanted to get a better sense of how cows move in their everyday life. To do this, they enlisted 17 healthy cows from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences’ Livestock Research Centre. These cows were outfitted with wireless motion sensors on 11 spots along their body, including their legs and neck. These sensors are used to collect data that’s known as inertial measurement units, or IMUs. One by one, the cows were then guided back and forward through a corridor about 70.10 m long (one researcher trailed behind the cow to deter it from turning back but otherwise didn’t interact with it).

It’s the sort of test you would give to suspected drunk drivers, but in this case, the researchers just wanted to collect as much relevant data as possible on the normal walking patterns of a typical dairy cow, in a way that’s apparently never been done before.

“This is the first study that describes the kinematic gait characteristics of straight line walk in clinically sound dairy cows using body mounted IMUs at multiple anatomical locations,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

The circles indicate where researchers put motion sensors along the cows. (Image: Tijssen, et al, PLOS-One) The circles indicate where researchers put motion sensors along the cows. (Image: Tijssen, et al, PLOS-One)

Farmers largely rely on visual inspection of their cows to diagnose an unsteady gait (or lameness, as it’s also called), which can be a sign of more serious problems, including chronic pain or neurological conditions. But while this method can be fairly reliable for diagnosing severe lameness, it can miss less obvious cases that vets might be able to treat before it worsens. So the authors think the data signals collected from these tests could be used to help create reliable screening tests for a lame gait, even without the use of dedicated sensors.

“Future analysis of these signals in lame cows will allow us to identify the best features that can be used from IMU data to objectively quantify lameness and might be useful for the development of an automatic recognition method and extensions to computer vision techniques,” they wrote.

That’s great and all. But the most immediate benefit this study will provide humanity is simply the image of scientists trying to give cows a roadside sobriety test.