How To Safely Be Around A Cow

A caregiver examines the face of a brown cow.
It’s important for caregivers to know what Tito is trying to communicate when working with him!

Updated June 15, 2020

Although you may have nothing but the best intentions and warmest feelings for them, just like humans, there are times when cows might not want you in their personal space. Unlike humans, cows are much larger, faster, and sometimes horned. Even the most docile cow in your sanctuary might decide they need more alone time than you’re used to them needing, and it’s critical to recognize the signs they’re trying to give you before caution turns to agitation, or worse. Even on a peaceful sanctuary pasture, frightened or upset cows can easily cause catastrophic injuries and fatalities.

Ask An Expert

If you are not used to being around cows and are bringing one into your sanctuary, you should have an expert give you hands-on training in cow behavior if at all possible. There are many nuances in their actions that can not be conveyed through words alone!

Signs A Cow Wants To Be Left Alone

A cow will use many different tactics to let you know that they don’t want you around at the moment. Signs that a cow is uncomfortable include:

  • Raising their ears
  • Raising or flicking their tail
  • Quick and erratic body movements

If a cow does not feel like you’ve alleviated their discomfort, they may escalate their body language to include:

  • Loud vocalizations and bellowing
  • Bobbing or shaking their head or horns at you
  • Turning their body sideways to display how big they are
  • Snorting
  • Pawing or horning the ground
Danger Zone

If a cow drops their head to show their horns or drops to their knees, this is an extremely dangerous sign that they’re ready to make you leave their space very soon.

If a cow tells you their discomfort through these signals, you must immediately demonstrate that you mean no harm by turning your body sideways to make yourself smaller and walk away at a diagonal angle or back away slowly. Avoid eye contact with an upset cow, and if necessary, find a way to put something between the two of you, be it a tree, a wagon, or even other cows. If at all possible, don’t turn your back and run away from an uncomfortable cow unless you are in immediate danger and need the extra speed. If necessary, loudly yelling at a cow can give you extra time to get away, as it can startle them from approaching you further. If you do need to run away, do so at right angles from the cow in order to slow them down.

Things That Make A Cow Uncomfortable

Due to their natural instincts, there are a number of actions that you might have to take in a sanctuary environment that can make a cow less comfortable. Here are a few of their instincts and how they may react to a disruption:

Daily Habits

Cows find a lot of comfort in daily routines, and can become annoyed or afraid if their routine is disrupted, so be extra gentle and allow extra time if you’re asking a cow to do something they aren’t used to doing like going to a new pasture or barn. Cows can also be spooked by seeing something they’ve never seen before, like balloons or even flapping paper, so be wary when conducting novel activities around cows.

Flight Zone

Like most herd animals, cows have a flight zone. This is the area of personal space surrounding them where they feel safe and comfortable. Different cows will have different sized flight zones, especially depending upon whether they’ve come from traumatic backgrounds; a skittish cow might have a huge flight zone compared to the nearly non-existent flight zone of a docile resident. If you breach a cow’s flight zone, they will likely walk away from you. If you go much more into their flight zone, they might bolt or display signs of fear or agitation that you need to respect in order to prevent a dangerous scenario.

Don't Get Cornered

If you are cornered or in a tight space with a cow who is frightened, there’s a chance that they will run you into a wall or a gate, so it’s absolutely crucial that you always have an appropriate escape route, and take your time approaching the cow to gauge how they’re going to react as you get nearer!

Hearing

Cows are very sensitive to high pitched and loud noises, which are typically used as sounds of distress among themselves. Being yelled at, hearing barking dogs, or encountering loud noises can spook, agitate, and trigger flight and charge responses in wary cows. Try to be very cautious with volume around cows and keep talkative dogs away from them to prevent incidents.

Herding

Cows prefer to naturally herd together to shelter from the elements and protect themselves from predators. It’s likely that a cow might get depressed, lonely, or highly anxious if separated from the herd. If you do need to separate a cow, move them slowly and quietly, limit their alone time, and keep their herd nearby.

Maternal Instincts

If you’re caring for a mother cow with a calf, they will be rightfully protective of their young. Provide ample space for the mother and calf, never going between the two of them. If for some reason you need to separate the mother and calf, such as for a health examination, be very gentle in separating the two of them, and anticipate quite a bit of displeasure from the mother.

Sight

Cows do not have the best eyes when it comes to depth perception and lighting. Therefore, they might be afraid or agitated to be corralled into spaces that they cannot spatially discern very well or when transitioning from a very bright to a very dark space. They can also be afraid of confusing color patterns and high contrast imagery. Give them extra time to adjust to the new lighting and surroundings, avoiding quick movements around them. A cow will stand still and lower their head in order to appropriately gauge depth perception.

How Not To Be Kicked By A Cow

Cows have quite impressive wide-angle vision, but have a blind spot directly behind them in an expanding conical shape beginning behind their head. They have evolved to reflexively defend that area with a powerful rear leg kick that can easily incapacitate a predator or well-meaning human that unintentionally snuck up on them. They can kick outward to the side with their rear legs as well. This means that the area near a cow’s rear legs to a few feet behind them should be considered a very dangerous area to hang around without a cow’s knowledge.

If you need to get near a cow, speak to them calmly and clearly to get their attention, and approach them by their shoulder rather than from behind to give them ample clues of where you are and that you are not a threat.

If a cow appears to have an injury or affliction on either side towards the rear of their body, be very cautious in approaching the afflicted area, as cows have a tendency to reflexively kick towards their injured side to deflect opportunistic predators.

Tips For Safely Handling A Cow

Because of the importance of regular health examinations and operations, it’s critical to ensure that you or your veterinarian can safely handle each of the cows in your care. If they aren’t averse to humans due to past trauma, you can help accustom cows to your touch by running your hands gently over their bodies and legs when they’re relaxed. Some cows may never be fully comfortable with humans and may need to be examined by an expert with assistance every time. These cows likely need to be examined while in cattle chutes or squeezes unlike more docile cows who can be rope halter trained.

SOURCES:

Cattle Care | Farm Sanctuary

Tips For Being Safe Around Livestock | On Pasture (Non-Compassionate Source)

Safe Handling Of Large Animals | Grandin (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on December 23, 2020

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