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Scientists show cows can be potty-trained, just like your favorite pets

Don't have a cow, man. Cattle can learn to use a latrine, and it's for a good cause.

cow-image

Using the MooLoo. 

Video screenshot by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper/CNET

Kittens can be trained to use litter boxes, and puppies learn to do their business outside (some better than others). So maybe we shouldn't be surprised that calves, too, can be potty-trained. And that's no bull. 

"It's usually assumed that cattle are not capable of controlling defecation or urination," says animal psychologist Jan Langbein, co-author of a study published Monday in the journal Current Biology. "Cattle, like many other animals or farm animals are quite clever and they can learn a lot. Why shouldn't they be able to learn how to use a toilet?"

It sounds crazy to teach cattle where to pee -- imagine a black and white Holstein sitting on a potty chair -- but there's a good reason to do it, and it's not just to keep your pasture pristine. Cow urine is high in nitrogen, and breaks down into nitrate and nitrous oxide. Nitrate pollutes nearby bodies of water and nitrous oxide is a long-lived greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. 

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So a group of scientists from the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology and the University of Auckland set out to teach calves to pee only in one spot, where their urine can be treated and cleaned before it causes any problems.

It's not a toilet, exactly. Researchers are using the term latrine instead -- and this isn't an army latrine, it's a specific fenced-off area that's been lined with artificial grass, which researchers dubbed the "MooLoo." But 11 of the 16 calves in the program learned to use the latrine area within weeks.

How did the researchers get the cows to use the MooLoo? First, they used vibrating collars to teach the cows to walk a short distance to the bright green latrine area, and gave them treats (molasses) if they peed there. Then they increased the distance to the latrine.  If a cow started to pee in the wrong place, scientists used the same technique many pet owners use to keep their dogs and cats off the couch -- squirting the animals with cold water when they start to urinate in the wrong area. The water doesn't harm the calves, but just as with Socks the cat at home, it annoys them. 

The training spread over 15 days, and most of the calves learned within 20 to 25 urinations. The report says that compares favorably with toilet-training time for 3- and 4-year-old children.

Study co-author Lindsay Matthews told ABC the team only trained cows to use the MooLoo for urinating, not defecating, saying urine is a bigger problem. But Matthews predicted they could use the same techniques to teach calves to go No. 2 in a specified area, so stay tuned. Maybe a PooMooLoo will be next.