Cows aren’t cars, but these cattle look like you could pump petrol straight into their sides. A disturbing number of photos and videos online show cows, like these, with holes cut into their sides, fitted with a plastic ring to hold their flesh open.

They’re called fistulated cows, and removing a chunk of these animals’ abdomens to expose their stomachs has been a longtime practice of animal experimenters and is even done at some veterinary schools and universities. Although many claim that the surgery doesn’t hurt the cows or reduce their life expectancy, the mutilation still has a four- to six-week recovery period, in which there’s no doubt that the animals are uncomfortable.

A fistulated cow can also be called a cannulated cow.

Although fistulated cows may prove to be a startling sight at first glance to those unfamiliar with them, they are the part of a practice that is neither a new nor controversial. Cannulated cows have been used in veterinary research for decades, and most researchers contend that the animals do not suffer ill effects from the procedure

A fistulated cow has an opening cut into her stomach. The opening has a ring around it, and it can be closed with a big plug. The cow heals around the ring, and the cow continues to digest food as if the opening wasn’t there.

By creating this window into the cow’s stomach, scientists can learn how the stomach works. They can see how fast a cow can digest certain foods. They can also learn about the bacteria that live in a cow’s stomach.

Reaching into a cow’s stomach is a very strange feeling. The cow is working hard to break down feed, so the stomach is very warm because of this energy. The fistula opens in a part of the stomach called the rumen. The sides of the rumen feel soft.

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