Cows’ natural inquisitive nature helps them to explore their world, and their constant, creepy stare is an evolutionary trait which helps them track predators and judge whether or not they think you’re a threat.
Cows have a unique stare in the animal world. If you’ve ever walked near them you may have noticed their relentless, piercing eyes following your every move.
It often feels like cows are staring deep into your soul, or silently judging you for having that hamburger for lunch last week, but why do cows really stare at you?
In this article, we’ll learn all about cows staring, find out some reasons why they stare at you, what it means when they stare at you (and each other), and also find out what it means when a cow makes direct eye contact.
Why Do Cows Stare At You?
Cows stare at you for a number of reasons, but most of the time it comes down to their evolution.
Cows’ ancestors were not only prey animals, but roaming herd animals, which means they need to be constantly finding new places to eat as well as constantly being on the lookout for predators.
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why cows might stare at humans:
1. Cows Are Naturally Inquisitive
Cows are naturally curious, inquisitive, and exploratory.
Due to the huge size of ancient bovine herds, they had to be constantly moving to find fresh food. More curious cattle would find more food and live on to create the next generation of cows, while the more fearful cattle who stayed put would be more likely to starve.
Over thousands of generations, this curious, exploratory nature was built in to cows’ evolutionary psyche, and it persists to this day which is why cows will often investigate you as you pass their pasture.
2. Cows Stare At You As A Threat Assessment
Cows’ ancestors roamed the plains of Africa and the Eurasian Steppe, and had to be extremely aware of their surroundings to keep an eye out for any predators.
Although modern domestic cattle don’t have the same threats as their wild ancestors, they share these same survival instincts.
When a cow notices a new person nearby, they have a need to understand whether or not they pose a threat to them.
Cows approach unknown animals (including humans) by locking their gaze on to them, and very slowly moving towards them until they feel comfortable around you.
Intense staring is one of the seven ways to tell if a cow is angry with you.
They tend to do this in groups, which can be a very creepy experience if you don’t understand what’s going on.
Cows rarely turn their back to a predator, because their best defence is their horns, and predators know this. Researchers from University of New South Wales found that painting eyes on the rear of cattle in Botswana reduced incidences of predation by lions.
3. They Want Treats or they want to be Petted
Domesticated cattle who have grown up around people often learn to associate people with food and attention.
Cows know that when the farmer turns up he brings bales of hay, treats, and pets them, and they may associate this with other humans too.
If you see cows staring at you in anticipation, it may be that they are just hoping you’ll bring them something tasty, or pet them behind the ears.
What Does It Mean When Cows Stare At You?
Although cows stare at you in a few different scenarios, the underlying reason is always that they are trying to figure out more about you.
Whether it’s them trying to figure out if you’re going to pet them, if you’re a threat to them, or if you’re someone they know, cows stare intently at things as a way to learn more about them, and to judge them.
Why do Cows Stare into the Distance?
Ever wondered what cows are thinking about when they are standing in one spot, staring into the distance? While we can’t know exactly what they are thinking, we can learn about how they feel by how often they change where they are looking.
According to Progressive Cattle Magazine, cows who stare off into space in one direction are content and satisfied with their environment.
In contrast, cows who are uneasy or nervous will constantly be looking around to make sure there are no predators or threats nearby.
I understand this cow more and more every day. pic.twitter.com/R2jqAGWjb5— Kovie Biakolo (@koviebiakolo) October 30, 2018
While we can’t know exactly what cows are thinking about, cows’ distant gaze is a small window into their soul.
Read More: What Do Cows Think About?
Why Do Cows Stare At Each Other?
For highly social animals like cows (and humans), communication includes not only sound, but visual cues like head movements and eye contact.
Cows are emotionally intelligent enough to recognize these subtle cues, and face each other similarly to how humans look each other in the eye when lost in conversation.
Cows can recognize emotions in other cows as well as other mammals, and are deeply emotional creatures, capable of feeling complex emotions of their own.
Read More: Fear, Grief, and Loneliness in Cows
What Does Eye Contact Mean In Cattle
Animals are split into two camps when it comes to eye contact.
Less social animals may perceive eye contact to be aggressive, whereas more social animals use eye contact to convey a range of emotions.
In a recent paper in the scientific journal Nature, it was found that there was a relationship between the perception of eye contact as threatening behavior and the level of egalitarianism in the societal structure of a given species.
What this means is that for highly cooperative and egalitarian species like cows, humans, and elephants, eye contact is usually not perceived as a threat.
For cows and other socially intelligent species, eye contact can convey a whole range of emotions and is a crucial part of forming connections with others of the same species.
By contrast, in more individualistic species where “every man for himself” is the prevailing social paradigm, eye contact is usually perceived as an implicit threat of violence.
Cows usually stare at you out of pure curiosity. Cows are extremely curious, if you were to go and sit in a field full of cows, they would slowly wander towards you and encircle you.
Since cows are prey animals, they stare at you (and other animals) to assess whether or not you’re a threat to them. In this case, cows will keep an eye on you and gradually get closer to you, never turning away from you until they know you’re not a threat.
Being herd animals, cows are extremely sociable. Like humans, elephants, and other emotionally intelligent mammals, cows don’t see eye contact as a threat, and in fact cows use eye contact to convey and understand a complex range of emotions.
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.