What’s The Difference Between Cattle and Cows?

In common language, cattle and cows are used interchangeably to represent domestic cows, however the terms actually have quite different meanings.

What’s The Difference Between Cattle and Cows

Cow is the common name for domesticated cattle (Bos Taurus), but the term can also be used to refer to any female mammal with a calf. Cattle is used to describe all domesticated cows and similar species such as yaks, buffalo, and elk regardless of their gender.

In this article, we’ll be looking at the definitions of Cow, Cattle, and some other important related terms, figuring out how they are connected and learning when it’s appropriate to use each of them.

Cattle Terminology: Cow vs Cattle 

What Does “Cow” Mean?

In scientific terms, “cow” simply refers to an adult female mother in any mammalian species. Even aquatic mammals like seals, dolphins, and whales are called cows when they give birth.

Of course, in common parlance the word “cow” is usually used to refer to domesticated cattle, whose scientific name is Bos Taurus and which are usually used for meat or milk. These are the cows we see in the fields or in dairy farms.

What Does “Cattle” Mean?

Cattle is a word used to describe any bovine species, but most commonly to refer to domesticated cattle (common cows).

Cattle isn’t gender specific, so unlike with the word “cow”, cattle can refer to either male or females.

Are Cows Cattle?

Yes, cows are cattle. Western (European) cows are from the species called Bos Taurus, which is also known as domesticated cattle. Cattle may also refer to buffalo, bison, and elk.

Read More: Buffalo vs Cows – What’s the difference?

What Are Female Cows Called?

Female cattle have a few different names, depending on whether or not they have had a calf, and also depending on who is talking about them.

Female Cows may be called heifers, cows, or dams, depending on the circumstances.

Female Cow TerminologyDescription / Use Case
HeiferFemale cattle who haven’t yet given birth to a calf.
CowFemale cattle who have had at least one calf. Sometimes used generically to refer to all cattle, including males.
DamWhen talking about a cow calf, the mother is referred to as the Dam. The equivalent term for the father cow is Sire.

What Is A Male Cow Called?

Male cattles may be known as steers, bulls, bullocks, or sires, depending on the situation. In everyday language, a distinction is often not made between male and female cattle and the generic word “cow” is commonly used to refer to any cattle regardless of their gender.

Male Cow TerminologyDescription / Use Case
SteerCastrated male cattle.
BullockOlder castrated male cattle, who are typically more aggressive like a bull but without the ability to reproduce.
BullMale cattle who have not been castrated. Usually used for replenishing the herd and keeping dairy cows perpetually pregnant.
SireIn the context of a cow calf, the father is known as the Sire. The equivalent word for the mother cow is Dam.
CowIn everyday language, the word “cow” is often used to refer to any cattle, regardless of whether they are male or female.

What Is The Difference Between Cattle And Livestock?

Livestock is a more broad term than cattle. Cattle is most commonly used to refer to domesticated cows, but occasionally to other bovine species such as bison and buffalo, and can refer to wild or feral animals as well as domesticated farm animals.

On the other hand, livestock is a more general term which refers to any animal, with the exception of fish and poultry which is farmed for profit.

In this year’s global agriculture report by the foreign agriculture service of the USDA, both cows and pigs (beef and pork) are described with the “livestock” label.

Livestock is a term which can be used to refer to cows, pigs, sheep, deer, llamas, horses, oxen, donkeys, elk, buffalo, yak, camels, reindeer, goats, alpacas, and any other widely farmed animals, whereas cattle is a term that is only used to refer to bovine species like domesticated cows.

Where Does The Word “Cattle” Come From?

The word “cattle” derives from the Middle-French word for property (Chattel) which is itself derived from the latin word for property or possessions (Capitale).

Where Does The Word “Livestock” Come From?

The word “Livestock” has been around since the 16th century. It’s derived from the Middle-English word “Stock” which meant to store something for future use. (Like stocking a shelf or restocking a store)

Are Cows Livestock?

Yes, cows are livestock. Livestock is a broad term which encompasses cows as well as many other animals like sheep, goats, and pigs, so all cows can be referred to as livestock but all livestock can not be referred to as cows.

Types Of Cattle Apart From Cows

Cattle is usually used to refer to common domestic cows (Bos Taurus) however there are several species included under the umbrella term of cattle.

Apart from modern European cows (Bos Taurus), cattle may refer to:

  • Bos Indicus (Asian Cows)
  • Bison
  • Elk
  • Buffalo & Water Buffalo

Within each species there are thousands of separate breeds of cattle, some of which are wild like the European Wood Bison, and some of which are highly selectively bred like the popular Fresian cattle, famed for their milk production.


To conclude, cattle is a word used to describe any bovine livestock, including cows, elk, and buffalo. All cows are cattle, but not all cattle are cows.

The word cow is usually used to refer to Bos Taurus (domesticated cattle), the type of cow we see in the west, but any female mammal with a calf is also a cow. This term can even be used to refer to aquatic creatures like whales and dolphins.

Although in general terms cow is usually used to refer to any cattle regardless of the gender of each animal, the word cow specifically refers to a mother cow with a calf, and there are other terms to refer to male cattle or female cattle without calves.

Livestock is a broader term than cattle. While cattle is usually only used to refer to bovine species like cows, bison, and buffalo, livestock can be used to refer to any farmed animal except poultry and fish.

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