Can you potty-train a cow? The answer may surprise you.

Holstein cows in the pasture

Photo: Getty Images

“Why not just potty train the cows?” That’s what a radio host asked animal behaviorist Lindsay Matthews during a 2007 interview about how cow urine harms the environment. The question was in jest, but it got Matthews — a researcher at the University of Auckland in New Zealand — thinking. Now, nearly 14 years later, he and colleagues have accomplished what many thought impossible: they’ve taught nearly a dozen calves, which normally pee and poop at random, to “hold it” and urinate in a specific location. You heard that right: potty trained cows.

… If applied to the 270 million dairy cows across the globe, it could put a serious dent in the toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases produced by bovine waste.

… UK researcher Lindsay Whistance tried her hand at potty training cows in 2009. Looking for ways to keep the animals from soiling their bedding, she and colleagues taught a handful of calves to relieve themselves for a reward. Right after they peed or pooped, the cows turned to Whistance for a treat, showing they were aware of their bathroom habits. But funding for the project ran out.

… That’s where Matthews came in. In phase one of the potty training, the team gave 16 calves a diuretic before confining each one to the MooLoo. The animals were rewarded with food whenever they urinated. After 10 to 30 tries, 10 calves learned to associate peeing with the treat: They turned to the food window right after urinating — sometimes midstream.

… In the next two phases, the researchers moved the calves into the hallway, gradually increasing the distance to the latrine up to 5 meters. Cows that urinated before they got to the commode were softly sprayed with water. After five to 15 rounds in the new setup, 10 of the calves walked all the way to the bathroom to relieve themselves, almost always without an accident along the way.

… Whistance isn’t convinced that potty training cows in the real world is realistic. The animals would have to hold their bladders for much longer distances in an actual barn and might have to muscle past dozens of other cows to get to the bathroom.

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