Most people know that cows have hooves, but what about toes? It’s not immediately obvious from looking at a cow’s foot whether they have toes at all.
Cows do have toes, but they are quite different from human toes. On each foot, cows have two digits, which are connected to their hooves. Cow hooves are actually the cow’s toenails. They are made from keratin, the same material that human nails and hair is made from.
In this article, we’ll be learning all about cows’ toes and hooves, what they are like, why cows need such strange toes, and how a cow’s toes compares to a human’s toes.
Do Cows Have Toes?
Cows do have toes, but they are probably not what you think. On each foot, cows have two separate digits (toes) which are connected to their hooves.
Similar to other cloven-hooved animals like pigs, goats, and sheep, cows have hard hooves on the end of their toes, which helps them walk over rough terrain.
Cows have two distinct hooves, one connected to each toe. The left hoof is called the medial claw, and the right is called the lateral claw.
What Are Cow Toes Like?
Cow toes are each made up of three separate bones, exactly the same as humans. These bones are called the tarsal, metatarsal, and phalange bones.
Read More: Cow Leg and Foot Anatomy
At the end of each toe, cows have a large hoof (or claw) which grows out from the ends of their toes.
Cow hooves are made from keratin, which is the same material human nails are made from. Essentially, cow hooves are the toenails of each toe.
Why Do Cows Have Toes? (What Do They Use Them For?)
Cows use their twin toes and their flat hooves to help them balance, and to navigate through and over rough terrain.
Their thick hooves protect their soft feet from being damaged by rocks and other sharp objects, and the flat shape of their hooves allows them to traverse boggy terrain without getting stuck in the ground.
Cows also use their hooves for foraging, and they use their rear hooves for defending themselves from predators.
How Many Toes Do Cows Have? (And Why)
Cows have two toes.
It is speculated that cows evolved two toes to help them traverse boggy or marshy terrain.
Cloven hoofed animals like cows appeared towards the end of the Eocene period around 33 million years ago from five-toed animals. Over time, five-toed animals endemic to marshy terrain evolved large, fused toes to prevent them from sinking into the soft ground.
Eventually, their four front toes were fused into two, giving them a larger surface area to spread their weight more evenly, and their fifth toe diminished, turning into what we now call a dew claw.
Problems with Cows’ Toes
Like humans, cows’ toe nails (their hooves) grow all the time. According to research from North Carolina State University, cows’ hooves grow by roughly 0.5mm to 2mm of growth every month.
Over a year, this means cow hooves can grow by up to 24mm, or almost one inch.
To prevent excess hoof growth from causing lameness, farmers must constantly trim the hooves of their cattle herds to keep them flat and to check for any problems.
Excess hoof growth is much less of a problem for beef cattle, since they spend most of the year out in the pastures grazing. Dairy cattle who spend a lot of time in the milking shed do not have the opportunity to wear their hooves down naturally and can end up with serious hoof issues like laminitis if they are not cared for.
Are Cows Artiodactyls or Perrisodactyls?
In zoology, animals are sometimes categorized according to the number of functional toes they have.
Animals with an odd number of toes are called perrisodactyls, and animals with an even number of toes are called artiodactyls.
Cows are artiodactyls, since they have an even number of toes.
- Domestic Cattle/Cows (two toes)
- Impala (two toes)
- Reindeer (two toes)
- Pigs (two toes)
- Hippopotamuses (four Toes)
- Giraffes (two toes)
Perrisodactyls or odd-toed ungulates are hoofed mammals with one or three toes that bear weight, although in most cases these animals also have vestigial claws which are not used.
Some examples of perrisodactly include:
- Rhinoceroses (three toes)
- Modern Domestic Horses (one toe)
- Zebras (one toe)
- Tapirs (three toes)
To sum up, cows have two toes on both their front and rear feet. Their toes are made up of three bones, similar to humans, but with a large hoof on the end of each toe which are roughly equivalent to a human toenail in composition, although much larger.
In addition to cows’ two main toes (which make up their hooves), they have a vestigial toe at the back of their foot called a dew claw.
Cows’ hooves are hard and flat, to protect their soft feet from damage by rocks or other hard objects while they are out foraging.
Originally, cows’ ancestors had five toes, but around 33 million years ago their front four toes fused together, giving them a larger surface area to disperse their weight more evenly, allowing them to more easily traverse marshy or boggy terrain.
Sadly, cows’ toes and hooves are a source of many problems, since they grow very quickly and don’t always grind down naturally at a fast enough rate. Without sufficient care, cow hooves can delaminate, allowing bacteria and infection to take hold and causing lameness in the animal.
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.