Share On

Jump To

Jump To Section

Share On

Jump to
    Add a header to begin generating the table of contents

    Jump To

    Jump To Section

    Daily Observation For Cow Resident Health And Well-Being

    a person kneels next to a brown and white cow and looks at them
    Piia Anttonen spends time in the forest with Nunnu, a rescued cow. Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / #unboundproject / We Animals Media

    This resource has been updated as part of the veterinary review process. It was originally published on August 23, 2022.

    vet review seal

    Veterinary Review Initiative
    This resource has been reviewed for accuracy and clarity by a qualified Doctor of Veterinary Medicine with farmed animal sanctuary experience as of January 2024. Check out more information on our Veterinary Review Initiative here!

    If you’ve spent much time looking through our offerings, you likely know the important role routine health checks play in keeping residents healthy and catching signs of concern early. Performing health checks regularly is imperative, but this should not be the only tool you use to monitor your residents’ health and well-being. The importance of thoughtful daily observation cannot be overstated. While some issues may be difficult to detect without a hands-on physical evaluation, there are other potential signs of concern that could be missed during a health check, particularly those that manifest as slight changes in behavior or activity. By incorporating both daily observation and routine health checks into your care protocols, you are more likely to catch issues that develop in the period between health checks, as well as issues that are unlikely to be detected without a hands-on evaluation.

    When it comes to daily observation, the keyword is “thoughtful.” Daily observation of residents must be more than just looking at them. Anyone caring for an animal, regardless of their species or breed, should be trained to observe the individuals in their care for behaviors and physical signs that are abnormal for the species, keeping in mind issues that are common in a particular species or breed and their warning signs. Of equal importance is getting to know the individuals being cared for and watching for things that are out of the ordinary for that particular individual. To read more about refining your observation skills, check out our resource here.

    Familiarize Yourself With “Normal”

    In order to identify signs of concern, it’s helpful first to consider how a healthy cow typically looks and acts. While all cows are unique individuals, there are some general characteristics that most healthy cows will present. However, there will be some variation based on the individual’s breed and unique characteristics, so it’s also important to learn what is “normal” for each individual in your care.

    With that in mind, in general, a healthy cow should:

    • Be bright and alert, though they do relax during the day
    • Have clear, bright eyes
    • Have a moist nose and regularly lick their nose
    • Move their ears in response to various sounds
    • Have a fairly smooth, shiny hair coat (their winter coat is thicker and may not be quite as shiny as their summer coat)
    • Stand and walk with a fairly flat back 
    • Walk with an even gait
    • Rise from lying down with general ease (this can become more difficult for elderly cows, but this may become their new “norm”)
    • Urinate and defecate with ease and without signs of pain
    • Spend a significant portion of the day eating and chewing cud (typically, less than a third of the day is spent neither eating nor ruminating). When available, they will typically spend 6-11 hours grazing each day.

    In addition to paying attention to what your residents look like and how they behave, it’s also helpful to pay attention to their poop for clues about their health and nutrition. The color and consistency of a cow’s poop will be dependent on their diet. During the times of the year when residents are primarily on pasture, their poop will typically be dark green and looser in consistency than when they are on hay. When they are primarily eating hay, poop will typically be brown and more formed.

    Potential Signs Of Concern

    Now that we’ve got an idea of what is “normal,” let’s look at potential signs of concern. Because every resident is an individual, it’s important to get to know the unique individuals in your care so you can recognize when they are not acting like themselves. Caregivers who really spend time getting to know their residents in terms of their personality, typical behaviors, physical characteristics, and routines can sometimes catch when something is wrong before there are clear signs of illness or distress. Sometimes, it’s something as simple as an individual remaining down while the rest of the herd moves to a different area of their living space or an individual not waiting eagerly for you to refill their hay feeder as they normally would. Any time you notice a change in an individual’s normal routine, it’s a good idea to evaluate the individual and keep a close eye on them.

    While not an exhaustive list, during your daily observation of your residents, be on the lookout for the following:

    General signs of pain/discomfort such as…

    • Tooth grinding 
    • Bellowing or grunting
    • Constantly shifting weight on the back legs
    • Sensitivity to being touched (generally or in a specific area)

    Changes in their posture, gait, mobility, or activity level, such as…

    • Holding themselves in a “stretched” position or in a “sawhorse” stance
    • Standing with a hunched back, with their legs closer or farther apart than normal, or with legs tucked underneath them
    • Head tilting 
    • Limping, stiffness, hunching, dragging, weakness, taking shorter steps than usual, trying to keep weight off a particular limb or claw (which may manifest as turning out the foot to take pressure off the outer claw), or bobbing their head when they walk 
    • Incoordination or circling
    • Muscle tremors
    • Sitting or lying down more than usual or remaining down while the rest of the herd is active (in addition to paying attention to how often they are lying down, also look for other clues they may be spending more time lying down, such as sores developing on the outside of their hocks)
    • Sitting in an unusual position (such as “dog-sitting”)
    • Difficulty or inability to rise (in some cases, you may see signs on the ground that the individual has spun around in a circle or dragged themselves, in other cases, a large pile of poop behind the individual may indicate they have not risen in a while).

    More On Cows Who Cannot Stand (“Downed Cows”)
    If a cow is unable to rise, this is an urgent matter, and you should consult with your veterinarian immediately. Sometimes, a cow cannot rise because of the position they are lying in, the terrain they are lying on, or because of their place in the environment. Cows stand by rocking forward on their front knees and raising their hips, first coming to a standing position on the back legs, followed by the front legs. If they do not have room to rock forward (for example, if their head is up against a wall), they may have difficulty rising. If it seems the cow cannot rise due to the way they are lying or where they are lying, your veterinarian may be able to talk you through or assist in safely repositioning them so that they are able to get up. Other times, an individual may be truly unable (or unwilling) to rise due to illness or injury, and your veterinarian will need to examine the resident to help determine the underlying cause and best course of action. A prompt response plan is key. If the individual is unable to remain in a sternal position (i.e. if they are stuck on their side), it is imperative that they be propped up to prevent them from bloating.

    Changes to their physical appearance, such as…

    • Distention of the abdomen, particularly the left side (this plus signs of pain could indicate bloat, which can be a life-threatening situation)
    • A gaunt appearance
    • Weight loss or a loss of body condition
    • Changes in hair coat, including unexplained hair loss or hair that appears dirty (keep in mind that cows do shed their winter coats)
    • Skin changes such as lumps, lesions, scabbing, discoloration (in isolated patches or more generally), or oozing sores
    • Sunken eyes (this is a sign of dehydration)
    • Squinting, ocular discharge, changes to the appearance of the eye (including cloudiness), or raised lesions on the third eyelid
    • Nasal discharge (some clear nasal discharge is normal, but mucus, foam, or blood coming from the nose is cause for concern)
    • One side of their face drooping
    • One or both ears drooping (though some breeds, such as Brahmans, have naturally droopy ears)
    • Swelling of the jaw or swelling/fluid build-up under the jaw (“bottle jaw”)
    • Excessive drooling 
    • Swelling above the hoof, between the claws, or under the dewclaws
    • Cracks or lesions of the hoof
    • Vaginal discharge or prolapse
    • Rectal prolapse
    • Pale mucous membranes

    Changes in behavior such as…

    • Kicking at their abdomen
    • Head pressing
    • Avoiding or being rejected by herdmates
    • Changes to their daily routine or behaving differently than they usually do

    Changes to their eating and drinking…

    • Exaggerated chewing or dropping wads of cud or other food
    • Disinterest in eating or eating less than usual
    • Chewing cud less than usual (If you are concerned, you can listen to their rumen and count rumen contractions, which will give you important information to share with your veterinarian. To learn how to do this, check out How To Conduct A Cow Health Check and scroll down to the “Check Their Rumen” section).
    • Not drinking water or being excessively thirsty 

    Other things to watch for include…

    • Open-mouth breathing, labored breathing, or elevated respiratory rate (the normal resting respiratory rate for an adult cow is between 12-36 breaths per minute, and for calves is between 30-60 breaths per minute)
    • Coughing, wheezing, or other abnormal breathing sounds
    • Abnormal smell to their breath or body
    • Straining during urination or defecation (if a male is straining to urinate, particularly if they do not have a good, steady stream of urine, this is a medical emergency)
    • Abnormal body temperature (in some cases, individuals may feel excessively warm or cool to the touch, or their extremities or ears may feel cold). If you have concerns about a cow’s body temperature, you should take their rectal temperature (normal is about 100.5-102.5 Fahrenheit/38.1-39.2 Celsius, though this can be affected by the ambient temperature, so comparing an individual’s rectal temperature to a herd mate’s may be useful).
    • Dry gums or nose
    • Udders that are hot, swollen, firm, painful, discolored, or oozing
    • Flies swarming a particular area (which may be an indication of a wound or that your fly mitigation strategies need to be reevaluated)

    You’ll also want to look for signs of potential concern in their poop. While not every unusual finding is cause for immediate concern, be on the lookout for the following issues and contact your veterinarian for guidance if seen:

    • Projectile, watery diarrhea
    • Dark or bloody poop
    • Light green, yellow, or gray diarrhea
    • Unusually firm poop
    • Poop with large amounts of undigested material in it
    • A pale white color on the surface of dried poop
    • Foamy poop

    Some gastrointestinal disease processes that cause diarrhea in cows are zoonotic, meaning they can be transmitted from cows to humans. Therefore, it is important to wear gloves when working with an individual with diarrhea.

    blue cow

    Diagnostic Testing Is Important, Too!
    It’s also important to note that just because feces looks “normal” does not mean that a resident does not have internal parasites. Be sure to work with your veterinarian to establish routine fecal testing protocols and to test individuals who are showing signs of parasitism.

    If you see any of the signs above or anything else out of the ordinary, be sure to investigate further and consult with your veterinarian as needed. Depending on the severity and whether or not there are multiple signs of concern, the individual may need to be seen by a veterinarian immediately. In some cases, conducting a health check, either in full or in part, can help you gather more information about the individual to share with your veterinarian so they can help determine the best course of action. 

    Now that you have an idea of what to look for, be sure to build thoughtful daily observation into your caregiving routine if you haven’t already! The more you observe your residents, the better you’ll become at differentiating between “normal” and potentially concerning. Whenever you’re in doubt, err on the side of caution and contact your veterinarian for guidance.


    While there is a lot more than what can be covered in a few points, this handy infographic covers six things to look for when trying to ascertain whether a cow resident is in good health or not!

    Signs Of A Healthy Cow Resident by Amber D Barnes


    Large Animal Internal Medicine 5th Edition | Bradford P. Smith (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Observing Cow Signals | Cow Talk (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Healthy Cow Check-Up – How To Perform A Physical Exam | eOrganic (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Using Manure Evaluation To Enhance Dairy Cow Nutrition | Penn State Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Using Manure Evaluation As A Diagnostic Tool For Feed Program Evaluation | USDA (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Understanding the Ruminant Animal Digestive System | Mississippi State University Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

    The Many Shades Of Cattle Lameness | South Dakota State University Extension (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.

    Article Tags

    About Author

    Get Updates In Your Inbox

    Join our mailing list to receive the latest resources from The Open Sanctuary Project!

    Continue Reading

    Skip to content