Depending on who you ask, cows are either large, fearsome beasts just waiting to charge at you or mellow, gentle giants that wouldn’t say moo to a goose. Luckily, we have almost 10,000 years of cattle breeding experience and plenty of facts and figures to find out the truth.
Cows are mostly prey animals, which means they aren’t aggressive. However, this isn’t the full story. Although cows are not generally aggressive, they can still be dangerous due to their sheer mass, and hundreds of people die every year in cattle-related accidents.
In this article, we’re going to look at aggression in cows and learn more about if and when they are aggressive, how they are dangerous, and how to keep yourself safe when you’re around cattle.
Are Cows Aggressive?
Cows are not usually aggressive, although they will defend themselves if they are backed into a corner, and they will defend their calves. Cows are prey animals, which means that they lean more towards the ‘flight’ end of the fight-flight spectrum.
One situation where cows will be aggressive is if they are defending their young. In a 2007 study published in Livestock Science, it was explained that maternal defensive aggression resulted in serious and fatal injuries to livestock handlers and members of the public.
How Do Cows Show Their Aggression?
Cows show their aggression through a series of behaviors known as a threat display, and with physical aggression using their hooves and horns. Although cows are rarely outwardly aggressive, it’s important to recognize threat display behaviors to avoid any physical attack that might follow.
1: Head Down – Showing Horns
Cows in a defensive position will lower their heads, showing off their horns.
If you see a cow lowering its head, it’s best to back away from it slowly. Cows have a fight or flight instinct like all prey animals, and once you get inside of their flight zone (which can extend to up to 300ft) a cow will feel threatened and will be constantly assessing you.
Related Article: How High Can A Cow Jump
2: Pounding dirt with paws
Dirt pounding is a very common behavior in cows and bulls, both of which stamp the ground with their front hoof as a threat display.
This behavior usually precedes a charge or a butt, so it’s important to recognize it.
Read Also: Can Cows See In Color?
Since cows’ legs have slightly different anatomy to humans, they are unable to kick forwards, however, they have a very powerful rear kick which is strong enough to break bones and cause hospitalizations.
Farmers often use a device called a cattle chain, which is a metal chain that is slung over the back of the cows to prevent them from being able to kick backwards. Cattle chains are usually used in milking parlors, where farmworkers have no choice but to walk behind cows.
Related Article: What Are Freemartins?
Goring is the term used for cattle seriously injuring someone with their horns. It’s often fatal and isn’t only a problem for farmers, but for other cows too.
For a cow to be able to use their horns to attack, they need to be up close. Cows would prefer to flee than fight, and lots of gorings occur accidentally when a cow gets scared while being handled by a farmworker.
This form of aggression in cattle can be mitigated by disbudding, a process by which cow horns are removed at a young age so that they can’t grow or become dangerous. This makes cows much easier to handle and safer for farmworkers.
Read More: Do All Cows Have Horns?
How are Cows Dangerous?
Even though cows aren’t usually overtly aggressive, they are still very dangerous animals. Their hooves, horns, and sheer mass cause hundreds of human deaths every year, and that’s not even considering indirect dangers like disease.
Horses and cattle are more dangerous than any type of farm machinery. Let’s look at some of the dangers of cattle.
1: Physical Aggression
Cows are rarely physically aggressive, but it’s still something to know about. The main forms of physical aggression for cows are ramming or butting, which can be extremely dangerous if they have horns, and kicking, which injures hundreds of farmworkers every year.
2: Accidental Trampling
Cows are easily spooked and will try to run if they feel scared or threatened. While this isn’t a problem out in an open field, the sheer mass of cows means when they run they can cause injuries to any nearby workers.
Cattle can trample people or crush farmworkers, often pinning them between walls or other objects as they try to flee.
According to a 2012 research paper by Turkish researchers Kamil Hakan Dogan and Serafettin Demirci, Horses and Cattle are responsible for more injuries to people every year than any farm machinery.
3: Food Supply Dangers
One hidden danger of cattle is the danger they pose to the human food chain. There are many cattle-born diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease, anthrax, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (the human variant of Mad Cow Disease) which usually start in cattle and make their way to humans through infected meat products.
It’s for this reason that there are extremely stringent regulatory requirements placed on farmers and ranchers as well as abattoirs and butchers regarding cleanliness and hygiene of meat handling.
How To Stay Safe around Dangerous Cattle
If you’ve read this far, you might think cattle are too dangerous to work with, but don’t let me put you off.
Cattle are only dangerous if you put yourself in a situation where they have the potential to injure you. If you keep away from dangerous situations it’s perfectly possible to work with or around cattle while minimizing the risk of injury.
Here are some tips to minimize the danger while working around cattle:
- Don’t approach cattle from the rear, since it can startle them and they can kick backwards
- Stay away from mothers with calves, this is when cows can be physically aggressive
- Watch out for threat displays (lowering head or stomping hoof)
- Stay away from bulls, they tend to be more aggressive than cows
- Keep cattle secure so they can’t hurt anyone with their sheer mass
To sum up, cattle aren’t typically aggressive, but they can be when they are backed into a corner or when they are defending their young. Cows may show their aggression by charging towards any threat, swinging their horns, or kicking with their powerful back legs.
Although cows aren’t typically aggressive, they are still dangerous given their size and strength, and cows injure hundreds of people every year by trampling or crushing farmworkers.
Stuart is the editor of Fauna Facts. He edits our writers’ work as well as contributing his own content. Stuart is passionate about sustainable farming and animal welfare and has written extensively on cows and geese for the site.