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    Safe Cohabitation Considerations For Cows

    two black and white cows rub their faces against each other
    It’s important to understand who cows are and what they need when considering living arrangements and social groupings. Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

    This resource has been fully reviewed and updated by a member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff as of September 1, 2021

    Because every resident is a unique individual, it’s difficult to offer specific guidance regarding safe cohabitation with members of other species. However, there are certain species who may be more likely to safely cohabitate than others, and in some cases there are species combinations that are best avoided entirely due to potential safety risks or care needs that are too different. In order to make responsible, informed decisions about living arrangements and social groupings for any species at your sanctuary, it’s important to consider who they are, generally, as a species; what their needs and preferences are; and also to consider who they are as an individual. Additionally, you’ll want to think about any safety risks they could potentially pose to another species and vice versa. Below we’ll discuss important things to keep in mind when considering living arrangements and social groupings involving cows. In addition to the information below, you’ll need to consider the specific needs of the individuals you are considering housing them with.

    Consider The Risk Of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Transmission
    On March 20, 2024, The Minnesota Board Of Animal Health (MBAH) announced the first detection of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) in a domesticated ruminant in the U.S. after a goat kid in Stevens County tested positive. Soon after, HPAI was detected in cows at dairies in Texas and Kansas and has since been detected in cows in additional states. This is a developing situation. For more information about HPAI in domesticated ruminants, check out our FAQ here.

    In general, we think it’s best to house mammalian residents separately from avian residents, but given the current situation with HPAI detections in domesticated ruminants, housing them separately is imperative.

    Social Considerations

    If you’ve ever had the opportunity to observe cows grooming each other, you probably already know that they are social animals who have evolved to live in herds with other cows. Living in herds can help provide protection from predators, and even in settings where individuals are not at risk of predation, living with other cows can offer a sense of security. Herds also provide opportunities for cows to learn from one another. With this in mind, we recommend giving cow residents the opportunity to live with other cows whenever possible. However, it’s important to offer residents enough space and resources- overcrowding and competing for resources can result in unhealthy herd dynamics. 

    As herd animals, isolation can cause significant stress, so if a cow resident is unable to live with other cows, it will be important to give them the opportunity to bond with a companion(s) of a different species while ensuring everyone’s safety.

    Further Reading
    Sometimes you need to consider separating an individual from their companions due to a health issue. You can read more about considering alternative living arrangements due to a health concern here. Also, be sure to check out Creating An Enriching Life For Cows for enrichment ideas to utilize during times when someone must be away from their companions.

    Dietary Considerations

    Cows are grazing ruminants. While some cow residents may require supplemental food, a healthy, mature cow will primarily eat fresh pasture grasses or dried grass hay, and this is the best diet to promote healthy rumen function. Unless there is a specific reason not to do so, offering unrestricted access to forage is recommended. Therefore, housing cows with individuals who should not have unlimited access to forage or who require a different type of forage can be challenging.

    Access to concentrates or pelleted food designed for other species can result in gastrointestinal issues. Therefore, it will likely be easier to house cows with other species whose diet consists primarily of fresh or dried forages than it will be to house them with species whose meals consist of pelleted food or concentrates. However, keep in mind that different species have different preferences when it comes to forages, and they also have different grazing behaviors that should be considered. On average, cows will graze between six and eleven hours a day and will graze for the longest periods of time and take their largest grazing meals at dusk and dawn, with shorter grazing periods in between. This is considered their “natural grazing behavior”. If cows are living with individuals who must be closed in overnight to ensure their safety from predators, it may not be possible to accommodate your cow residents’ natural grazing behavior.

    In addition to forages, cows typically receive supplemental minerals, either in loose or block form. The mineral formulation that is most appropriate for your cow residents may not be safe for other species. For example, species who are sensitive to copper (such as sheep, llamas, and alpacas) could be at risk of copper toxicity if fed minerals formulated for cows. Additionally, some minerals for cows contain additives that are toxic to equines, and the salt in their minerals could be dangerous to pigs.

    For more information on your residents’ dietary needs, check out our species-specific Daily Diet, Treats, And Supplements resources.

    Housing Considerations

    As we mentioned above, cows need a lot of space, both to avoid unhealthy social dynamics and also (assuming your residents have access to pasture for grazing) to offer enough fresh forage throughout the grazing season. Some species or individuals may not be safe in areas this expansive. It’s also important to consider the type of terrain different species thrive on. Due to their large size and risk of developing osteoarthritis, steep, rocky, and slick terrain should be avoided. Also keep in mind that cows may struggle in pastures that have been heavily rooted up by pig residents.

    Indoor spaces for cows must be adequately ventilated in order to prevent respiratory illnesses. You’ll want to consider if you can provide the necessary ventilation for your cow residents while keeping residents of other species safe and comfortable. 

    For more information on your residents’ housing needs, check out our species-specific Creating A Good Home resources.

    Safety Considerations

    When considering mixed-species social groups, be sure to consider any potential safety risks. While a cow’s size depends on their breed, sex, and age, most cows grow to be very large. Housing them with species who are much smaller could pose a safety risk even if everyone gets along well. Consider the potential risk of a larger cow stepping on or bumping into a smaller species, which may be more likely if certain areas of the living space are crowded or if doorways are narrow. While calves may be closer in size to smaller mammalian residents, such as sheep and goats, male calves may attempt to mount them which could have devastating consequences.

    Despite their large stature, cows are still prey animals. It might seem strange to think that a dog could pose any sort of danger to a larger cow, but depending on the individuals involved, a dog could be seen as a threat. Cow residents could become stressed or fearful due to the dog’s presence, and if they feel threatened, they may react in a way that can cause serious injury to the dog or to themselves.

    If a cow resident has horns, be sure to consider the potential risks of housing them with members of a different species. We’ve heard reports of horned cow residents injuring (sometimes accidentally) other residents.

    Consider The Individuals

    In addition to understanding who cows are and what they need as a species, be sure to consider the specific individuals in your care- thinking about their unique personalities and preferences as well as their health care needs. For example, an older, docile cow resident may not pose the same safety risks to sheep and goats as a younger, more active individual, but that same individual may have a harder time sharing an outdoor space with pigs who root up the pasture. A cow who is skittish around humans could pose a greater safety risk to smaller species if they tend to move quickly when humans enter their space.

    There’s a lot to consider when figuring out social groupings for sanctuary residents, and things can get even more complicated when you start thinking about how different species will do together. Be sure to consider the needs of all species involved and think about whether or not you can meet everyone’s needs and keep everyone safe in a mixed-species group.


    Daily Diet, Treats, And Supplements For Cows | The Open Sanctuary Project 

    Creating A Good Home For Cows | The Open Sanctuary Project

    Cow Talk, Chapter 4: Cattle Behavior | Dr John Moran and Dr Rebecca Doyle (Non-Compassionate Source) 

    Concerns With Keeping Different Types Of Livestock Together | Knoji (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.

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