Cows can eat meat, but it is not common. They have been seen to eat chickens and chicken eggs on very rare occasions. But, as more or less vegetarian animals, their key diet is grass, grain, corn, and other feed provided to them by farmers.
There are several reasons it is a bad idea for cows to eat meat, including:
- It can lead to Mad Cow Disease.
- They don’t have a top row of teeth.
- Their stomachs aren’t designed for it.
Therefore, farmers will not feed meat to cows, and similarly, cows do not hunt or seek out meat when they are out to pasture.
Why Don’t Cows Usually Eat Meat?
1. It can Lead to Mad Cow Disease
It can be dangerous for cows to eat meat because it gives them a disease called BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy). You might also know this disease by its colloquial name, Mad Cow Disease.
Mad Cow Disease and its link to eating meat was discovered in the 1960s in the UK. At that time, soy prices spiked, so farmers started feeding cows slops of meat instead. Before long, the cows started acting ‘mad’ and had to be euthanised, which to this day is why farmers do not feed cows meat.
When cows get Mad Cow Disease, their neuropathways degenerate and the cows die. Their brains and spines deteriorate, leading to behaviors that make them look mad, before they die.
Common behaviors in cows with Mad Cow Disease include:
- Weight Loss
- Decreasing Milk Production
Cows with Mad Cow Disease will degenerate for 2 to 8 years before they are put to death by farmers or agricultural regulators.
Today, there are very strict regulations on what cattle can eat, and what ingredients may be included in animal feeds used for cattle. These regulations are in place to prevent the spread of diseases like BSE.
2. They don’t have a Top Row of Teeth
Another reasons cows don’t eat meat is that their mouths are not designed for it. Carnivores have evolved canine teeth to tear apart meat, which cows do not have. You can feel your canine tooth in your mouth right now – you’ll have two of them on your top row of teeth. They’re sharp and long for ripping meat.
In fact, cows don’t even have a top row of teeth at all! Instead, they have a hard leathery pad called the ‘dental pad’. The cow will grind grass, hay and other foliage across the top of that pad and mix it with saliva to slowly break it down.
Without that top row of teeth, chewing meat would be very difficult for a cow.
3. They don’t have Stomachs for Meat
Cows are ruminants, meaning their stomachs have four chambers in them. These stomachs evolved specifically so they could process tough foliage rather than meat.
The foliage goes into the cow’s first chamber, called the rumen, and is stored there until the cow is ready to chew on it. The cow will then regurgitate the foliage and chew away at it to grind it down in a process called chewing cud.
The foliage will then enter the second and third ‘stomachs’ (really, chambers) where the food is further digested slowly. Finally, the forth stomach is where the food is finally processed like a normal stomach – much farther down the digestive process than we humans!
The whole point of this four-step process is to process hard-to-digest foliage. It’s designed for that, and not for meat processing.
Nevertheless, cows can digest small amounts of meat.
4. The Meat could Rot in the Rumen
Furthermore, because the cow’s first stomach chamber is essentially a storage container for food, any undigested meat in that first chamber could feasibly rot. While not likely, this rot could also be a cause for concern and a reason why cows shouldn’t eat meat.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Do Cows eat Chickens?
Yes, cows have eaten chickens before, and we even have footage of them eating meat. However, this is very very rare. Here’s one example of a video of a cow eating a baby chicken (it’s a bit gross!):
However, this is rare and very uncharacteristic of cows. They will usually not hunt down or trap animals to eat. In fact, it’s not really a part of their genetic behavior at all. Cows have become soft, domesticated animals that have no in-built hunting instincts. They rely totally on farmers for their feed.
Historically, farmers haven’t intentionally fed chicken to animals either.
2. Do Bulls Eat Meat?
Bulls do not usually eat meat. Cows and Bulls share a very similar all-vegetarian diet. Some farmers may increase a bull’s protein levels, but in general, both bulls and cows will be fed the same diet of grains, hay, grass, oil seeds and silage.
A bull’s intake will often increase during mating period thanks to their high libido and desire to mate. Another time a bull’s diet will be increased is when it’s about to be sold so it will look healthy for potential buters.
3. Do Cows Eat Afterbirth?
One exception to their vegetarian rule is the fact that cows will often eat afterbirth. This is natural in the animal kingdom, and may stem from the fact that animals want to get rid of the entrails so they don’t alert nearby predators of their new birth. Newborn calves are very vulnerable because they’re disoriented and cannot flee or protect themselves. Eating the placenta will get rid of the smell and any evidence that a birth recently took place.
4. What are some Vegetarian Foods for Cows?
In general, beef cattle are allowed out to graze on grass and other natural foliage, while dairy cattle are often fed with grains, hay, silage, or animal feed.
This difference is due to the additional energy required by dairy cows to produce milk, and the fact that dairy cows spend a large part of the day in the milking shed, where wild grass is not available.
While out grazing in the pastures and fields, cows feed on natural foliage made up mostly of grass and leaves, but can also include other plants and trees.
Cows have sharp, angular teeth in the front of their mouth which helps them chop through bark and young shoots, and large, grinding teeth in the back which helps them grind their food to a pulp that their stomachs can digest.
Though the majority of their energy comes from grass, cows have a very strong stomach which has four separate stages of digestion, meaning they can feast on whatever flora is available to them.
Grazing cows may feed on:
- Small shrubs or plants
- New shoots
- Fruit from fruit trees
- Tree Bark
- Root vegetables
- Wild berries
Farmers may also feed cows:
Because cows are herbivores, they will rarely eat meat of their own accord and they will not hunt other animals. While there are historical examples of cows eating meat – including eating live chickens and being fed meat by farmers, as a general rule you will not find a cow eating meat. Most farmers will also not feed meat to their stock because it may be unhealthy and lead to disease.