Scientists Potty-Train Cows to Combat Polluting Emissions

  • The cows are coming home, and they all want to use your toilet.

Can you housebreak a cow? We’re not sure how many people have asked that question, but it only takes one to try and find the answer.

And that answer is yes, you can. A German research team has figured out a way to potty-train cows, and it just might help us cut back on farming’s ammonia emissions.

Cows are more famous for their poop and flatulence, but they also have to pee. And boy howdy, do they do it a lot.

A single cow can urinate several, even dozens of gallons per day. With more than one billion cows in the world, well… That’s a lot of pee.

All that pee from herds upon herds of cows causes all manners of environmental problems. If the cows are grazing freely in the fields, the ammonia-laden pee can leach into waterways, where it causes reactions that release nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

That’s on top of having a massive amount of cow pee in the water you might drink or swim on, you know.

It doesn’t get much better if you confine the animals to a barn. There, their urine will mix with all the poop on the floor, forming a delightful slurry that oozes ammonia.

Faced with this frankly disgusting conundrum, the scientists wondered if it would be possible to train cows to use a toilet. Their study, published in the journal Current Biology, showed that it indeed is.

Thus was born the MooLoo potty training program.

“Stop taking forever in the bathroom. Others have to use it too, you know.”

Food and Showers

But how do you even begin to train a cow to use the potty? According to the study’s co-author Dr. Jan Langbein from the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology, it’s really not that much different from training any other animal.

“Normally, it is assumed that cattle are not able to control their defecation or urination,” Langbein said.

“Cattle, like many other animals or farm animals, are quite intelligent and capable of learning. Why shouldn’t they also be able to learn how to use a toilet?” he added.

We suppose he makes a point. After all, had anybody ever bothered to try whether cows could learn to use a toilet before?

Like with most things, it’s best to start learning where to pee while you’re young. So, the researchers initially focused their efforts on calves.

They built special cow latrines with an artificial turf flooring, which were then placed in barns. Next, the researchers had to find a way to motivate the animals to go and use the latrines.

“You have to try to involve the animals in the process,” Langbein explained. And what do animals love more than treats?

Every time a calf successfully used the latrine, the researchers gave them a tasty morsel to eat. But they also thought it could be a good idea to discourage urinating outside the toilet.

That’s where they got creative. They fitted the calves with headphones that played an unpleasant sound whenever they peed where they shouldn’t have.

We thought this would punish the animals — not too aversively — but they didn’t care. Ultimately, a splash of water worked well as a gentle deterrent,” Langbein said.

Better than Babies

It didn’t take long for the MooLoo program to start showing results. After the cows had learned to use the latrines in a barn, the researchers took them to the field.

As was perhaps expected, moving to an outside environment made the cows forget exactly where they were allowed to pee. But the combination of treats and cold showers soon reminded them that, oh yeah, they were supposed to use the toilet.

In just 10 days, the researchers had successfully trained 11 of the 16 participating calves to only pee in the latrines. They say that even the rest can most likely be potty-trained — they’ll just need a bit more time to get the hang of it.

For comparison, the cows rivaled — and in some cases did better than — human children learning to use a toilet. Take that, babies.

The cows don’t even have to be completely perfect about using the toilet. The research team’s findings show that capturing 80% of the cows’ urine in the latrines could reduce cattle-related ammonia emissions by 56%.

According to Langbein, further training and research can further improve the MooLoo program’s already impressive results. Different training methods could work better on different animals, he said.

“After 10, 15, 20 years of research with cattle, we know that animals have their own personalities and deal with different things in different ways. They are not all the same,” Langbein explained.

The scientist has high hopes for the MooLoo program. Next, he wants to bring the training methods to large outdoor farms.

“In a few years, all cows will go to a toilet,” he said.

We’ll update you on that once we see it.