Is it ethical to drink milk from animals?

dairy cows

When we think of dairy milk, we often think of just cows, but there are so many animals who are involved in the dairy cycle. Goat, yak, buffalo, camel, sheep, zebu, and even reindeer, horse, and donkey milk, is popular in other countries. If reading this list of species makes you feel a little uncomfortable, then maybe it is time to question why drinking a cow’s secretions isn’t just as strange.

milking a horse
Milking a horse.
Credit: Michael Turtle

This week, we will explore some facts about mammals, the way the industry operates, the environmental impacts of our demand for animal milks, and the health impacts of this.

About these animals

Mammals only produce milk for their young

Just like humans, cows, camels, goats, yaks, buffalo, horses, donkeys, sheep, reindeer, and zebu, only produce milk to nourish their babies. All mammals have mammary glands and pregnancy stimulates the progesterone and oestrogen hormones, which promote the development of the milk duct system in their bodies [1].

Like humans, all of these animals carry their young inside them for months, forming a connection with them. Sheep and goats are pregnant for approximately 5 months [2], yaks 8 months [3], cows 9 months [4], buffalo and zebu 10 months [5], horse 11-12 months [6], donkeys 11-14 months [7], and camels 12-14 months [8]

camel and calf
Mother camel with her calf.

Mammals are maternal

Mammals care for their young into adulthood to ensure their infant survives and will eventually reproduce [9]. Mothers across all species are known to nourish their young, defend and protect them, and teach them how to survive. The dairy industry purposefully denies mothers a chance to bond with their young, as the babies are seen as competing for the resource – being the milk [10]. Both mothers and babies suffer from the separation. 

Focusing on cows, as they produce 85% of the world’s animal milk supply, a cow would nurse her calf for approximately 7-14 months [11]. In as little as 5 minutes postpartum, mother and calf develop a strong specific maternal bond [12]. Being a herd animal, cows and their young would typically stay together for future generations. Although, bulls may leave to start their own herd. After separation, cows are known to look for their calves and bellow out for them, while calves also become more vocal. A more recent study found that calves who are removed from their mothers are less social and active [13].

“Calves hate being weaned and cows hate their calves being taken away, whether after one day or five months. But it is better to do it before a bond has developed. In nature cows would live together as a family with cows and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so we are already interfering a lot with that family process.”

Helen Browning, Dairy Farmer [14].
dairy cow and calf

The Industry

There are millions of animals (and species) trapped in the dairy cycle. If we look at just cows, there are over 270 million spread around the world [15]

While not common in Australia, cows may be kept indoors for all or part of the day. Many large-scale dairy farms around the world keep the cows in sheds, with no access to pasture for their entire lives. This increases locomotive disorders, lameness, mastitis, boredom, and stereotypies (tongue rolling) [16]. Buying imported dairy products means you could be supporting these farms.


Australia has around 1,562,000 dairy cows, spread across 5,700 farms. These mothers produce 9.3 billion litres of milk every year [17]. The average Australian drinks 107 litres of milk, 14 kg of cheese, and 4kg of butter in a year [18]. In contrast, there are 68 goat dairies, producing 16 million litres per year [19], 5,500 sheep across 13 sheep dairies, producing 550,000 litres [20], and approximately 8 camel dairies, producing around 50,000 litres a year [21].

milking dairy cow
Credit: Animals Uncovered


The following standards are common across the globe and are used on multiple species, but predominantly cows. The sources used are relevant to Australians.

Artificial Insemination

Artificial insemination (AI) involves placing semen directly into the uterus, rather than allowing animals to naturally mate. Using AI, means farmers do not have to care for males, they can access semen from males all over the world, having more control over genetics, and can impregnate more females in one season [22].

The female is usually restrained, such as inside a crush box. For cows, a worker inserts their arm into her anus and then with the other hand inserts a semen straw into her vulva. Using the hand that is already inside her, they guide the semen straw into her uterus and release the contents [23].

artificial insemination cow
Artificial Insemination

Semen collection

In order to use AI, semen must be collected. There are a few methods, but all involve exciting the animal, either with a female, fake female, or mounting device, and collecting the semen inside an ‘artificial vagina’ that has a vial attachment on the end [24, 25].

For bulls, some farmers use electro-stimulation, where an electric rectal probe is inserted into the bulls anus, forcing them to ejaculate [26]. This method is regarded as painful, causing pain, stress, and anxiety [26].

Bull semen collection

Separation and killing of babies

Most babies are separated from their mums after birth, as they are seen as competitors for the milk. Giving calves milk will reduce the supply for humans. As mentioned previously, this is extremely traumatic and distressing for mothers and babies. It is simply not viable to keep all offspring alive, for this reason, many are killed after birth.


In Australia, calves are taken from their mothers within 12-24 hours after birth, and both show a strong emotive response to the separation, though it is stronger if the calf is taken at an older age [27]. Cows are known to chase down the vehicles with their calves and bellow in distress.

“A dairy farm worker explained that the cows remember which vehicle came and took their baby away shortly after birth. On subsequent occasions when farm vehicles would drive past they would behave no different, no different that is until the one vehicle that took their baby would return. At this point, the cow would become nervous, anxious and edgy, looking for the baby she would never see again.”

Edgar’s Mission [28]

In 2017, Animal Liberation released world-first footage of dairy calves being taken from their mothers [29]. In 2020, a backpacker sent us footage from her time on an Australian dairy farm, which showed mothers chasing the trailers with their babies.

To the dairy industry, ‘bobby calves’ are newborn calves without their mothers, and are considered a surplus to the industry, as they are not required for the dairy herd. While roughly three-quarters of females are kept to replace ‘spent’ dairy cows, and both sexes may be used for veal or beef production, many are killed straight after birth on the farm or within a week of life at a slaughterhouse. Every year roughly 500,000 bobby calves are slaughtered [30].

Killing a calf is also no different to keeping them on a farm and raising them for veal or beef. All lead to the same horrific death, one is just prolonged. In Australia, between June 2019 and June 2020, 564,000 calves were killed for veal [31].

In 2019, we exposed the sale and slaughter of bobby calves in Australia:


Kids are removed from their mothers within hours of birth. Like with calves, female kids may be kept to replace ‘spent’ dairy goats and few males are kept for breeding, others may be grown out for meat, however, there is always a surplus meaning many are being killed onsite [32]. On a goat dairy, there is typically one male (buck) per 30-40 females (does). A study found that goats can remember their babies call after being separated for a year [33].

In 2019, Animal Liberation Victoria exposed the legal killing of kids (baby goats) on an Australian Goat Dairy farm. Footage showed kids, who were less than 24 hours old, being bludgeoned to death with a metal pipe [34].


The camel industry is fairly small in Australia. While some camel dairies claim to keep the young with their mothers for a period of time, this method is not economically sustainable. Once the young reach a certain age, the females may be added to the dairy cycle, and the males are slaughtered for meat or may be sold to another exploitative industry, such as racing and rides.

Earlier this year, Farm Transparency Project released footage from one of the Australian camel dairies.

Dehorning and Disbudding

Most breeds of dairy cows and goats develop horns as they grow. Horns are considered dangerous for workers, and for this reason, both calves and kids are disbudded or dehorned in Australia and around the world [35]. The industry also claims it is to protect other animals from injuring each other, however, this is due to the unnatural living conditions, boredom, frustration, and changes to the herd. 

Disbudding is the removal of the horn buds before they form an attachment to the skull. Disbudding involves using a hot iron to cauterise the developing horn bud, preventing further growth [36, 37]. This is typically performed on calves that are 6-8 weeks old, and goats who are 3-7 days old. A veterinarian can give local anesthetic, sedation, or anti-inflammatories, however, if a vet does not perform the procedure, animals can have this done without pain relief and then be given a topical anesthetic after the procedure [38].

Dehorning is more invasive as it requires removing the horn after it has connected to the skull. This is usually performed with a ‘dehorner’ or knife [39].

Tail docking

In most Australian states, it is legal to dock a calf’s tail [40], with approximately 13% of dairy farmers performing it. This is done using a rubber ring, sharp knife, or hot docking iron, and is done without pain relief. It causes chronic pain, inflammation, and lesions. It also reduces the cow’s ability to swat flies away, which can cause irritation and annoyance [41].


All mammals’ ability to reproduce and produce milk slows down at a certain age. As a result, the industry calls them ‘spent’ as they are no longer economically viable to keep, and sends them to slaughter.


While cows can live for 20+ years, the typical dairy cow will be sent to slaughter at just 7 years old, often while they are pregnant. Some individuals break down by the age of 3, while few last until they are 10 [42].

Alternatively, they are sent overseas on live export ships.


Goats can live for 15-20 years but are killed when they are no longer producing a viable amount of milk. Farmers may kill them onsite, send them to slaughter, or export them overseas [43]

Welfare Issues

Welfare issues, such as lameness and hock injuries affect one-quarter to one-half of cows on dairy farms on average [44]

Inability to express natural behaviours

Insufficient space, changes to herd structures, removal of babies, separation, lack of stimulation, can cause immense suffering to animals in the dairy cycle [35].

sheep dairy
Sheep milking system.

Unnatural milk production

Cows descend from the wild OX and have been genetically altered through selective breeding to increase desired traits, like milk production. Up until the 1800s, the average milk yield was around 1,000 kg, enough to sustain and grow her calf into adulthood. By the 1950s, dairy cows in most countries started producing around 3,000 kg per year, and now in the 2000s, cows can produce up to 10,000 kg every year [45 PDF, 46]. In Australia, cows average around 6,169 kg [47].

dairy cow udders
Credit: Animals Uncovered


Mastitis is an inflammation of the udders due to an infection, caused by bacteria or injury. According to the RSPCA, 5-10% of dairy cows suffer from this in Australia. Cows with mastitis show visible signs of discomfort, such as abnormal posture, increased sensitivity to the udders and teats, rapid breathing and heart rate, and high temperatures. This condition can be difficult to detect in the early stages, leaving cows in pain. If left untreated it can cause death [48]


Lameness is when cows have pain in their leg or hoof, that affects the way they walk and their ability to put pressure on it. It can be caused by an injury or a disease. It can be caused by living on wet surfaces, standing on concrete floors for long periods of time [49,50].

Trapping Camels

Camels are being caught in the wild and transported to camel dairies. The catching, handling, and transport of camels is incredibly stressful for the individuals, as they have been wild for many generations. The close contact with humans can cause acute lameness, damage to tendons, ligaments, and bones, bruising, fighting due to mixing groups, infections, feeding disruptions, and abortions in pregnant females [51]. While this industry claims they are providing homes or ‘sanctuary’ for the camels, they rely on separating mothers and babies, repeated pregnancies, eventual slaughter when milk production slows, and often send the males (bulls) to slaughter, as they are not economically viable to keep. 

trapped wild camels
Wild camels trapped.
Credit: ABC

The Environment

This section focuses on cow dairies, as they are the most common in Australia and is the most consumed around the world. Studies have concluded that dairy production, including cows milk and cheese, is significantly implicated in increasing “the environmental burden” posed by animal production [52].

Land Use

Almost 80% of the world’s agricultural land is used for farming animals. According to the ABS, in Australia, 4 million hectares of land is owned by dairy businesses and is used for grazing [53]. According to a global study, just one kilogram of milk requires roughly 8.95 meters squared of land, while cheese requires 87.79 squared meters [54]! If we continue with our current diets high in animal proteins and by-products, studies have found that close to 100% of land projected as required to feed the world on current diets “would be the result of increased dairy consumption” [55].

Not only does clearing native habitat contribute to a loss of biodiversity, but it also destroys the soil structure, increases wind and water erosion (meaning more pollution), and affects the soil’s ability to absorb carbon [56, 57].

Land clearing for farms and feed.


The dairy industry is a major user of water, across the world. In Australia, it accounts for 10% of water use [58]. According to the Save Water website, top operators use 500 litres of freshwater to produce 1 litre of cow milk [59], while the average remains between 628 and 800 litres [60]. One kilogram of cow cheese, on the other hand, requires 5,605 litres of water [61]! With a growing global population, water scarcity is becoming even more of an issue. Water Management Institute’s assessment projects that by 2023, 33% of the world’s population will be living in areas of absolute water scarcity [62]. In 2006, the United Nations (UN) released a report which explained that animal agribusiness operations were expected to require approximately 50% more of global water sources and uses by 2025, with a focus on dairy and animal products [63]

In Australia alone, over 4,650,000,000,000* litres of freshwater is used to produce just 9.3 billion litres of milk. *This figures is if everyone was operating as the top operators*. 

Cows also require feed. In 2018–19 the national average was around 1.6 tonnes per cow and year, unchanged from the last two years [64]. It would be more efficient to use this food for people instead of feeding animals who are going to be slaughtered.

impacts of milks

Waste and Pollution

Cows are known methane producers. A kilogram of milk produces 3 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions, most of which is methane. Cheese on the other hand produces 21 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram [65, 66]! In Australia, the dairy industry is responsible for 12% of all greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture industry [67].

A dairy cow typically produces 52 kilograms of manure each day and around 21 tons per annum [68]. 2500 dairy cows produce as much waste as a town of 411,000 humans [69]. Cows require nitrogen and phosphorus in their feed. To increase “reproductive efficiency, they are fed higher levels, however, the unabsorbed nutrients are excreted through fecal matter. A lactating cow excretes 63-81% of nitrogen it consumes [70, 71]. The nitrogen and phosphorus have the potential to cause environmental pollution to both soil health and water [72]. The dairy industry as a prime contributor to water pollution, particularly eutrophication.

Health Impacts 

There has been an ongoing debate about the consumption of dairy and associated health risks. Despite the industry claiming dairy is a health food – numerous studies show how untrue this is. 

Lactose Intolerance

Humans are the only species to consume milk in adulthood and are also the only ones to drink milk from another species. The point of milk is to help a newborn, develop into adulthood. Approximately 65% of adults around the world have lactose intolerance [73]. As an infant, our bodies naturally produce a digestive enzyme called lactase, which breaks down lactose from our mother’s milk. As we grow, and no longer need milk, our body stops producing this enzyme [74]

kid suckling from goat
Goat’s milk is for kids (baby goats).


Milk is often promoted for strong and healthy bones, however, studies have found the opposite. A Harvard study found that milk consumption during teenage years was not associated with a lower risk of hip fractures in older adults. Further, it found a 9% increase in risk for men who drank an additional glass of milk per day during their teenage years [75]. This could be due to the D-galactose found in milk, which has been shown to increase ageing in lab animals, shortening their life span, causing chronic inflammation, decreased immune response, and gene transcriptional changes [75].

“The countries with the highest rates of osteoporosis are the ones where people drink the most milk and have the most calcium in their diets. The connection between calcium consumption and bone health is actually very weak, and the connection between dairy consumption and bone health is almost non-existent.”

Amy Lanou Ph.D., nutrition director for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C. 


Another study found that high intakes of dairy products, such as milk, low-fat milk, cheese, and total, dietary, and dairy calcium, but not supplemental or non-dairy calcium, may increase one’s risk of prostate cancer. The results for the different types of dairy products and sources of calcium suggest that other components of dairy rather than fat and calcium may increase prostate cancer risk [76]. the consumption of dairy can increase the risk of lung cancer, breast cancer, and ovarian cancer [77].

calf drinking from cow
Cow milk is meant for calves.

Other Links

Other possible health ramifications of cow’s milk consumption and dairy products, include a modest increase in the risk of Parkinson’s disease [78], increased risk of type 1 diabetes development [79], cardiovascular disease, increased mortality rates [80], and a strong correlation between cow milk consumption and the incidence of multiple sclerosis. Cow’s milk is also a top source of saturated fat, which contributes to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease [81].

Plant-based Calcium Sources

Soy Milk290mg/cup
White Beans160mg/cup
Spinach145mg/1.5 cups
Chia Seeds75mg/TBS
Orange65mg/1 unit
Adzuki Beans65mg/cup
Snap Beans55mg/cup
Fig40mg/2 units
Sweet Potato40mg/medium unit
Parsley40mg/1.5 cups
Carrot40mg/medium unit
Pumpkin (Mashed)40mg/cup
Almonds30mg/9 nuts!
Tomato30mg/2 units

*Source – Simple Happy Kitchen

What next?

We hope that this has helped you see some of the hidden problems with consuming dairy and supporting the industry. With so many alternatives available, we no longer need to support the cruel dairy cycle.

If you have any questions, please leave them in the comments section below!