By: Jennifer Keeler
Cow hugging is the latest wellness trend and for good reason: It helps people feel whole. It’s simple to boot, an activity that’s exactly what it sounds like.
While it’s been big in Europe for years, it recently started to make a name for itself in the US, an angus amenity that many animal lovers can’t wait to experience. It provides us with physical and mental health benefits and, naturally, an improved “mooed.”
Cow hugging (or “koe knuffelen”) originated in the Netherlands in the town of Reuver. Somewhere past the cobblestone streets sits a lush countryside, where locals and tourists alike lay with cows for hours, leaning against their bellies, napping in their necks, cooing into their spotted ears. The humans walk away with decreased feelings of stress and increased feelings of positivity. The cows enjoy it too.
Cow Hugging in the Age of Corona
While cow hugging has been a pastime among the Dutch for more than a decade, it’s gained steam in other parts of the world most recently. The pandemic didn’t cause its onset in the US, but it undoubtedly buoyed its popularity; human beings are not meant for social isolation and quarantine set the stage for cow hugging to flourish. In 2020, people started milking it for all it was worth, using cattle connection as a way to circumvent seclusion and a lack of touch.
It’s become so popular that perhaps you know someone who has tried it (or you know someone who knows someone). Perhaps you’ve strode across the greenest fields to try it yourself.
You wouldn’t be alone: People throughout the US have experienced the four-hooved firsthand. And we asked them for the details.
Alexandra Seagal, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Animalso, describes trying cow hugging last year on a whim. “It was really cool being that close to an animal that you don’t get to see much in the city, and the cow I was hugging was very sweet,” she says, though she goes on to concede that she isn’t sure she’d go back, fearing that some of the charm might lay in its novelty.
John Stevenson, a marketing specialist at My GRE Exam Preparation, lives near a farm where cow hugging is routinely offered. He tried it after giving into his curiosity and found that it worked well in reducing stress. “The cows are warm, affectionate, and have slower heartbeats than us, which makes it very soothing as you sit down next to them,” he says. “It was a fun experience and I would love to do it again.”
Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM, a veterinary writer at We Love Doodles, admits that she was skeptical at first but found the experience powerful. “I was surprised to see how friendly the cows were and how cool it was to bond with them,” she says. “And yes, it was soothing. It is totally different from other calming activities but in a good way.”
Chris Adams, founder at ModestFish, reveals that he and his wife loved it so much that they plan to make it a bi-monthly activity. “It really helps us clear our minds from the day-to-day stress in our lives,” he explains. “I think a lot of it stems from the uniqueness of the situation. It’s something where you have no idea what to expect.”
Dan Morris, from PetNPat, lives in New Zealand, where cow hugging has been around long enough to feel like business as usual. “There’s nothing better than lying down beside one of the calmer, older cows and just being present with her,” he says. “It’s great fun just to sit with and enjoy the cow.”
Scott Kilmer, a car mechanic and father, lauds cow hugging for the impact it had on his child. “Holy cow! What a relief for my little girl,” he writes in the subject line of an email, before explaining that it was the only thing that helped ease his daughter’s stress from months of isolation. “It worked! She didn’t let go of her new friend for the whole hour – a smile on her face and all! We were so happy with the results that we immediately made another booking.”
Whether a one-time splurge or a new favorite activity, the consensus is clear: Cow hugging is udderly worth it.
The Power of the Human/Animal Connection
Cow hugging, at its core, plays on the connection between two species. Humans and animals have always been linked on an innate level: We’ve rode horses for thousands of years, dogs are our best friends, and cats affectionately tolerate us (at least a large portion of the time). We’re even animals ourselves, if you want to get technical.
The human/animal relationship goes well beyond the superficial, the practical, and the useful: Our connection to animals is so intense that it changes our physiology.
According to the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, spending time with an animal can influence blood pressure, heartrate, hormones, and how the body releases and uses vital neurotransmitters.
Among the most important aspects of this connection is oxytocin, which increases in both humans and animals when the two touch. Oxytocin is a chemical deemed the “love hormone” because of its ability to elicit feelings of trust, empathy, and warmth while reducing feelings of angst, fear, and depression.
The main purpose of oxytocin is to bond, acting like Elmer’s Glue for the soul. It bonds beings to each other so potently that it plays a major role in a mother’s ability to instantly connect with her newborn child. This, in part, helps explain why humans feel such a kinship with animals (and vice versa): We’re stuck together through biology and happily so.
There are other benefits of this connection that aren’t quite as understood. It’s hypothesized that the relationship between humans and animals relaxes adrenal hormones, thus reducing heartrate, blood pressure, and the risk of heart disease. It’s also speculated that caring for an animal encourages people to better care for themselves: Animals get us out of bed, out of the house, and out in the sunshine. And, of course, they give us purpose.
The ability for animals to reduce loneliness no doubt plays another role (in both pandemic and non-pandemic times). Humans are “pack persons” and the old adage “people need people” consistently rings true. But sometimes any mammal (or reptile or amphibian or bird) works just as well.
The Benefits of Cow Hugging
The connection between humans and animals is often discussed and studied in relation to pets. So, how exactly does Bessie compete with Benji?
For starters, contact with a cow provides similar benefits as those discussed above: It leads to higher levels of oxytocin, lower stress hormones, and reduced blood pressure.
But there are two assets that make bovines divine for long-lasting perks: Their temperament and their size.
Cows are especially peaceful animals and natural relaxers; they’re akin to Aesop’s tortoise, a slow-and-steady stock. Their large size (the average cow weighs about 1,500 pounds) envelops the human and makes for an ultra-soothing experience. This can lead people to feel more comforted by cows than dogs; the bigger the animal, the larger the impact.
Prairie Conlon, a licensed professional counselor and clinical director of CertaPet, explains that a cow’s size also puts them at the center of the human attention span. She states, “When you step into a pen with any 1,000-pound animal like a horse or cow, you’re just in the moment. And so, it gives you that sense of relief and gives your brain a little break. And sometimes, just that interruption in that constant rumination or worry or anxiety, is enough to begin healing.”
Cows also have slow heartrates, averaging between 48-84 beats per minute, adding to their efficiency. When a person is hugging a cow or laying against them, the cow’s lower heartrate counteracts the higher human heartrate, which fluctuates between 60-100 beats per minute when at rest.
Finally, cows are literally warm and fuzzy: Their average temperature comes in around 101.5⁰ F, several ticks above the human norm of 98.6⁰ F.
Cow hugging, like so many aspects of the human/animal relationship, appears to be symbiotic. Getting scratched behind the ears or stroked alongside the head helps cows relax. Talking to them does as well, most notably when it’s done face-to-face – similar to humans after a year-long pandemic, they aren’t huge fans of Zoom.
How Does Cow Hugging Work?
Jumping a barb-wired fence and running through a meadow in search of a heifer to hug might make for a good story, but it’s not recommended, particularly if you can’t outrun a bull. Rather, cow hugging takes place on farms specifically designed for cattle cuddling.
The cost varies depending on where you go but averages around $75 an hour. The exact process differs too, with some farms requiring a tour or orientation process. Others supply tea, coffee, and – importantly – rubber boots. Some sessions last sixty minutes while others last several hours. Some involve meditation and mindfulness practices.
Cows are equally as variable: The social ones adore the attention while others mosey off after a while, headed toward a shady spot underneath a tree or happy hour at the trough. Some cows may not want to be hugged at all, acting like rebellious teenagers and preferring to be left alone with their grass.
Perhaps the most challenging part about cow hugging is finding a location near you. True to its origins, there are places in the Netherlands that offer this activity, including the Noord Empe Farm, where you can participate in a workshop to learn how to communicate with these fascinating creatures and read their body language. You can find cow cuddling in Switzerland and New Zealand as well.
Stateside, the demand dramatically outpaces the supply. While there are cow hugging events at The Gentle Barn in California, at Mountain Horse Farm in New York, at Krishna Cow Sanctuary in Hawaii, and at Aimee’s Farm Animal Sanctuary in Arizona, they may have waitlists, as locals and tourists hope to see what the furry fuss is all about. Or they may simply be too far away for a road trip.
Those who can’t find cow hugging nearby or can’t book a visit soon enough may benefit from other types of livestock loving.
In Colorado, Broken Shovels Animal Sanctuary sets up regular 90-minute cuddle sessions where guests can snuggle up to lambs, goats, pigs, bunnies, calves, and more.
Up north, Minnesotans have a particular penchant for llamas. Weeping Willows Acres, in Minnetrista, offers visitors a chance to rub elbows with llamas, sheep, mini donkeys, and peacocks. Carlson’s Llovable Llamas, in Waconia, is effectively all llamas, all the time; they even have llama yoga.
Passing Fad or Here to Stay?
Cow hugging rose to prominence during a year that was anything but normal. As the world returns to its regularly scheduled programming, there are fads that will surely fade away (like having a wardrobe that consists solely of fantastic elastic), just as there are fads that are here to stay (like working from home, which is well on its way to becoming a traditional office perk).
It remains to be seen the direction cow hugging will saunter toward. However, it certainly has history on its side: Humans and animals have been bonded together seemingly forever, and that bond appears unbending, unbreaking, and unlikely to do anything but strengthen.
Not only that, but cow hugging, as a therapeutic tool, possesses its own staying power.
Prairie Conlon compares the healing ability of cows to that of horses, stating, “I have seen lives change using equine-assisted psychotherapy. This does not involve riding the horse, which is a common misconception. It involves spending time with and reflecting on the animal’s movements and behaviors. I find people are so excited for their equine-assisted psychotherapy session. I can see it being the exact same thing with a cow hugging session.”
In other words, cow hugging is a legit and effective form of self-care, something most everyone everywhere could use a little more of.
Does this mean cuddling calves will displace downward dog as the most popular wellness activity? Or that people will make appointments in meadows instead of massage studios? Can we get #herdmentality to trend on social media until hugging a cow is as normal as going out for a jog?
Maybe…but maybe not.
At best, it’s likely that cow hugging will become a once-in-a-while treat rather than a habitual part of a daily routine. Yet in any case, it’s more than a flash in the pasture.
When it comes down to it, hugging these creatures – cuddling them, petting them, using them as pillows…it all brings people joy. As a result, cows have jumped over the moon and into our hearts. And happiness is something we’ll always be searching for more of…..even if it comes with a side of manure.