Cows are gentle giants, and while they are generally friendly towards humans there are a few things that can make them angry.
You can usually tell when a cow is angry because they will show signs of irritation such as flicking their tails or stomping their hooves, or if they are very angry they may display aggressive behaviors such as kicking.
In this article, we’ll look at the different tell-tale signs that show when a cow is irritated or angry, and also look at what it takes to make a cow angry, so you can stay safe around them.
How to Tell a Cow is Angry
Cows are mostly friendly, but because of their size they can be dangerous if they are angry or scared.
Unless they are charging straight for you, it’s not always easy to spot when a cow is angry and when you might want to keep your distance.
Here are seven ways a cow might show signs of anger or irritation, so you know what to look out for:
1. Erratic Movements
Cows can demonstrate their anger by moving erratically. This usually involves them shaking their head to show off their horns, and moving their head up and down.
Read More: Do All Cows Have Horns?
Cows and bulls move this way to show any would-be predators that they are ready to defend themselves.
If you see a cow acting like this, they are probably not too happy about you being near them. According to Open Sanctuary, when a cow moves erratically it means they want to be left along.
2. Stamping on the Ground with one Hoof
Although this sounds like a bit of a trope you might see on an old cartoon, this is real behavior in both cows and bulls.
In an article for Dairyman Magazine, Jack Albricht (Professor of animal science at Purdue University) explains that when a bull paws or scrapes the ground sending dirt out behind them, it’s part of a group of behaviors designed to make themselves more threatening to predators.
This type of behavior is called a threat display, and includes other behaviors like turning sideways to increase their profile, and shaking their horns.
3. Raised Ears
Raised ears aren’t necessarily a sign that a cow is angry, since they point and raise their ears to listen to something that catches their attention.
When cows feel threatened, they may also raise their ears to listen for predators, or to maximize their profile and scare off any predators they see.
4. Snorting or Chuffing
Bulls and cows snort as a warning to predators. It’s their version of a dog’s growl or a cat’s hiss.
If you get close enough to a cow to hear them grunting and snort, it’s probably too late for you.
5. Turning Sideways
Cows and bulls turn sideways when they feel threatened, to make themselves appear larger and more dangerous to any would-be predators.
In addition to turning sideways, cows have other methods to increase their profile, including raising the hairs on their necks, shaking their head around, standing their ears up, and flicking their tail around.
This type of behavior isn’t outright aggression, but occurs when a potential threat gets too close to a cow and usually precedes an attack.
This type of behavior is called a threat display, and is common in most animals. Some other examples of threat displays include a peacock showing off their feathers, a cat arching their back, a dog raising their hackle, and a puffer fish inflating their body.
Kicking is a common problem with beef cattle, who tend to be less socialized with humans than dairy cattle.
Cows don’t have many outright aggressive tactics available to them, but they can deliver a forceful kick from their hind legs. (Cows can’t kick forwards because of the joints in their front legs)
In agriculture, farmers sometimes use a tool called a legrope or cattle halter when they need to work close to aggressive cows who are prone to kicking. It’s a short, rigid rope or chain which attaches to the cow’s rear legs to prevent them from kicking and injuring the farmer or themselves.
7. Tail Flicking
Cows lazily flick their tails throughout the day to keep themselves free from flies and other insects, but rapid whipping tail is a sign that a cow is distressed, irritated, or angry.
What Makes a Cow Angry?
Cows are mostly peaceful, and only really get angry when they feel threatened or fearful.
Let’s look at some of the reasons a cow might get angry:
1. Maternal Instincts
The number one reason a cow will attack a human is that a person gets too close to a cow with a calf.
Cows are prey animals and will always choose to flee if given an option, but if you get close to their calves they will defend themselves using their weight, their hooves, and their horns.
If a cow is fearful of you, they are more likely to act aggressively towards you.
Cows will usually choose to flee if they are frightened, but if you’re the cause of their fear they may act angrily towards you.
Cows in pain will act aggressively, especially if they don’t understand where the pain is coming from, or they think you’re responsible for it.
Cows are prey creatures so have an innate understanding of pain and vulnerability. Like humans, pain and fear causes a spike in adrenaline in cattle, making them particularly dangerous.
4. Insufficient Enrichment
Cows are super smart and get bored easily. Without sufficient enrichment, cows can get bored and cranky.
There are loads of enrichment ideas for cows, which can help them live a more fulfilling life.
Cows need physical enrichment like cattle brushes to give them something to do during the day, social enrichment to keep them happy (cows are very social creatures, they even have their own best friends!).
Read More: What Do Cows Do For Fun?
Young calves are usually separated from their mothers soon after birth, so in some farms young calves are provided with large stuffed animals and mirrors, to try to help them feel less alone.
So long as cows have a suitable environment, they are usually peaceful creatures and are rarely angry.
When a cow gets angry, you’ll usually notice them trying to maximize their profile by whipping their tail, raising their ears, and turning sideways.
Before a cow attacks, they often flail their head around erratically, and kick dust out behind them with their front hooves.
The most dangerous time for angry cows is when mother cows are with their calves. Mother cows are on high alert with a new calf and have been known to attack humans who get too close.