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Photo: Paulina Lenting-Smulders / Getty Images

Many animal species look after each other: ducks scratch the feathers of their fellow birds with their beaks, primates eat louse and horses nibble on each other.

This behavior is called external grooming or allogrooming.

In this way, the animals not only maintain their fur or feathers, but also their social relationships.

Cattle also lick each other for this purpose - on the neck, face or throat - which reveals a lot about their position in a group, report researchers from the City University of Hong Kong.

"Social behaviors such as grooming are critical to how relationships develop and persist in herds of commercial and wild cattle," says Kate J. Flay, co-author of the study, in a statement.

“It is important to understand these preferential interactions because they can affect the health of cattle or other ruminants, such as parasite loads or the transmission of infectious diseases.”

The scientists did not examine cattle on farms, where most of their species live, but rather free-roaming wild cattle in Hong Kong.

In the Sai Kung East Country Park there, the team observed a mixed-sex herd between February and May 2022 and collected data from 47 to 56 animals per observation day.

The study has now been published in the specialist journal “Animal Behavior”.

Apparently it's not about benefits like food or protection

The result: Although all animals were cared for, not all animals cared for others.

On the one hand, gender obviously plays a role: in the study, males licked more females and fewer other males, and females licked both sexes equally.

On the other hand, the hierarchy is also important, at least for one gender: higher-ranking, i.e. more dominant females were cared for more often by conspecifics than subordinate animals.

Such a pattern was not evident in males.

It was also noticeable that high-ranking animals exchanged friendlier grooming among themselves.

"This suggests that grooming in higher-ranking animals is not about rank-related benefits such as food or protection, as is the case in primates," says co-author George MW Hodgson.

»But rather it serves to strengthen social bonds and promote belonging within the group.«

The findings help to understand the patterns of social relationships and what welfare means for cattle, say the researchers.