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Exhaust Sniffers & Nose Pushers...
By Heather Smith Thomas

Do exhaust sniffers grow up to be nose pushers?

Young calves are curious and bold, just like kids trying to check out their world and see what makes everything tick. Calves lick, chew and taste everything —from dirt to hay twines and fence posts (or go around licking the hair off the net wire fence where their mothers have rubbed) Curiosity is natural, but some of them take it to extreme and get into trouble, getting hairballs or plugging their digestive tract with dirt or a blockage caused by eating twines, plastic bags or other junk.

Every spring there are some individuals in our groups of calves who love to follow the feed truck, trying to smell the exhaust. If the truck is parked for a minute at the gate or left running while we ’re doing some task out in the field, these calves stand by the exhaust pipe trying to breathe in as much of the fumes as they can. My husband and I joke about these exhaust junkies, hoping they don ’t overdose on carbon monoxide —comparing them to human addicts who harm themselves with their substance abuses. The calves, however, don’t seem to continue their obsession as adults; we don’t have any cows that chase after the feed truck trying to sniff exhaust, so we chalk it up to juvenile curiosity. But adult cattle sometimes have strange behaviors that fall into a category of obsessions we generally think of as being reserved for humans.

Humans don ’t have a monopoly on bad habits, addictions, strange behavior or compulsions. We tend to think people are the only ones that become drug addicts, glue sniffers, alcoholics, chain smokers, etc. But if you work with animals, you know that they also fall prey to addictions, obsessive or compulsive behavior, or strange “habits ”,particularly when they are kept in an unnatural environment and stressed.

Those of us who raise horses and cattle and spend a lot of time in close contact with our animals have noticed that some individuals resort to unusual behavior under certain conditions. Confined animals, in particular, seem more prone to unnatural or unusual behavior. Domestic animals experience a number of problems (physical and emotional) that are never seen in their wild counterparts. Horses and cattle, for instance, are herd animals that roam freely under natural conditions, grazing and wandering, and taking part in the social interactions of the group. The stress of confinement and/or isolation from others of their kind can lead to behavioral changes.

In horses, for instance, the stress of being confined in a stall can lead to problems like cribbing, weaving, head bobbing, stall walking, stall kicking, self biting and other repetitive actions called stereotypies. These are usually rhythmic or repeated actions. Other examples of stereotypical behavior include paw-licking in confined dogs, cage pacing in zoo animals, feather plucking in caged birds, and so on. In horses, repetitive actions have been termed stable vices, but this is not an appropriate term. Technically speaking, vices are undesirable behaviors such as biting or bucking that can generally be corrected through proper handling and training.

By contrast, stereotypies are a kind of obsessive/compulsive behavior that is  much more difficult to halt. By definition, a stereotypy is  a ritualistic or repetitive type of  behavior that serves no apparent  purpose. Stereotypical behavior is  seen in about 15 percent of domestic  horses. The amount of time the  horse spends in these activities varies  greatly from horse to horse and may  be random, or associated with a cue  such as feeding time; many confined  horses habitually paw or kick the stall  walls at feeding time or become more  intense in their cribbing or weaving  activities. The repetitive action is  a way they ’ve found to cope with  stress. In most horses that start these  behaviors, it quickly becomes an  addiction. Many cribbers, for instance, will continue the habit even if they are removed from the stall and turned out to pasture, and a weaver may still do his ritualistic action or head bobbing by the pasture gate or whenever he is confined again (put into a stall or a trailer, for instance).

Stereotypies in cattle are generally not so obvious, since they are rarely confined as much as horses are. We usually don ’t put cattle into individual stalls or pens, and most cattle are not as hyper as horses; we don ’t see the same effects that are triggered by boredom in the confined horse. But if you ’ve ever had cause to confine cattle in small spaces —as in a feedlot situation or when they are confined in a small pen or pasture for calving or winter feeding, you may have noticed some abnormal behaviors.

For many years we calved in January, in order to avoid the mud and scours of March/April, and to have the cows all rebred (to our own bulls) in April before they went to summer range on public pastures. In our steep mountains, range breeding was never a satisfactory option because the cattle are widely scattered in rough terrain; cows don ’t get bred up as quickly as in smallerpastures where there ’s always a bull in close proximity. Range breeding, on our range, alwaysmeant a long, strung out breeding and calving season. So we calved in January and the cows would all breed up nicely in April, while still at home on small pastures, in small breeding groups, with planned matings (the cows put with the bull they best “nicked ” with, or one that was not their own sire). We have very fertile cows and only gave them a 32 day breeding season, then took the bulls out and sent the cows to summer range —and this makes a nice, short calving season. But in these conditions, the cattle are more closely confined than normal. During January in our part of the country it can be 30 below zero at times, and even during a mild winter it will drop below zero on cold nights.

So this means having the pregnant cows in an area close to the barn, checking them frequently during the night, and putting them into the barn when they go into labor. We calved in January for 35 years and our cows are gentle and easy to handle —very mellow and seemingly at ease with confinement.

Yet even an easy-going cow can be bored and frustrated by confinement. When walking through our soon-to-calve cows at night, I noticed a strange behavior. I first noticed it because I could hear the strange snuffling sound of a cow slowly breathing through closed off nostrils. The cow was standing with her head down, nose pressed against a frozen manure pile, eyes closed, seemingly asleep. On closer inspection, however, I could see she was not asleep, but in a sort of trance, with upper lip jammed hard against the solid object. After while she ’d quit “nose pushing” and go on about her normal activity, eating or chewing her cud. After seeing this several times (several individuals who did this more than once) I realized I was witnessing an addiction. These cows had found a way to relieve their boredom and make themselves feel good.

Since then I ’ve noticed some cows do this routinely when confined. This spring we had a couple cows who “nose pushed ” on an old coffee can covering a well casing in one of our small pens, when they were confined in that pen with their young calves for a few days. Even in a pasture with room to roam, if it ’s winter or early spring and there ’s no grass to graze (to occupy their time and interest) and just hay to eat, the hay is generally eaten within a few hours and this leaves the cow with not much to do the rest of the day. Some relieve their boredom by nose pushing—on an old tree stump or on the metal edge of the water tank. Any firm surface will do.

Stereotypical behavior in horses (repetitive actions) or nose pushing in cattle are actions that increase the release of certain chemicals (endorphins) in the body that make the animal feel good. These chemicals are morphine-like proteins (also called opiods) that suppress pain and create a pleasurable sensation. Horses seem to be relaxed and “spaced out ” after a cribbing or weaving session.

In horses that crib or weave, the constant repetitive activity triggers the endorphin release. Thus when a  horse learns that his weaving motions or cribbing (which he began in response to the stress of confinement, as an outlet for pent up energy and frustration) give him pleasure, he may keep up the habit even when he ’s not confined and stressed, because he gets his “fix ” by going through these motions and he craves the endorphins. Also, there are pressure points beneath the top lip, in horses and cattle, that when pressed stimulate the release of endorphins. This is why a horse can becalmed and “sedated ” when twitched (the thong or chain of the twitch, twisted around the top lip of the horse, puts pressure on this area) or when a lip chain or cord is applied beneath the top lip against the gum. And this is why cattle, if they discover the effects created by pressing the top lip against a solid surface, may continue this habit.

A bovine probably discovers this addiction by accident, just as a horse discovers that his frustrated attempt at getting out of his stall (walking back and forth by the door, or eventually refining the motions to shifting his weight back and forth as he bobs his head, or grabbing the manger or any other available surface in his teeth and later perfecting the action of jerking his head back and swallowing air —cribbing) makes him feel better.

Perhaps the cow started by rubbing her face and nose on a solid surface to scratch an itch and then found that pressing her nose harder, putting pressure on the gum beneath the lip, made her feel good. However it started, the ones that learn how to trigger their internal “narcotics ” often continuethe habit —and you may see them nose pushing when they have nothing better to do. So don’t be alarmed if you see a cow nose pushing, standing there in a trance. This is just her way of kicking back with a beer or a cigarette, getting her fix.

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