Reading cattle body language

Visitors to Solano Land Trust properties share the trails with cattle. Did you know that cattle have body language cues, just like dogs and cats? Jasmine Westbrook, Solano Land Trust’s project manager and cattle expert, shares interesting information on how to “read” the cattle that you will likely encounter while hiking on our properties.

Tail Tales

Just like dogs and cats, cattle give clues about their feelings through their tails. Like dogs, a relaxed cow will have a tail hanging down straight, and if in fear or pain, will clamp their tail between their legs. When feeling playful, cattle will often lift and curve their tails, and when running, will hold them out almost like a rudder! Like a cat, a swishing tail can be a sign of annoyance. Cattle will also use their tails to swat flies using random, often isolated tail movements. The faster and more rhythmic the tail swishing, the more stressed the animal.

Listening to Ears

Cattle ears are very sensitive and relay important information about the animal’s surroundings. There are visual cues we can learn from observing their ears, too. Ears cupped towards you means the cow is curious or attentive, but not scared. If both ears are back, that indicates that the cow is frightened or angry. If one ear is turned towards you and the other is back, the cow is vigilant but not frightened, and trying to decide if you are scary or not. If you see a cow with one ear forward and one back, stop walking towards it and look away for a minute. Give the animal time to realize you are not a threat.

Ruminating on rumination

Cattle eat plants that need to be digested slowly, so they spend many hours a day resting and digesting. Cattle that are digesting are not likely to run or make sudden movements. Signs that cattle have settled in for rumination (the digestion process) include:

     • Loafing, lounging, and lying down. Cattle will loaf in the shade in the summer, so be on the lookout for cattle lying under the trees!

     • Chewing their cud. Cud is a regurgitated mass of plant material. It sounds gross, but plant fibers are so tough that they need to be chewed, partially digested, then chewed again. If a cow looks like she is chewing gum, she is chewing her cud.

Cattle won’t ruminate if they are scared, so a ruminating cow is a happy cow.

Curious Cattle

Cattle, especially young ones, are curious creatures. A curious cow will have alert ears cupped towards you. It will watch you, maybe turning its head from side to side to view you with both monocular and binocular vision. The tail might be up and curved, and the cow may even come towards you with an extended nose to sniff you. As adorable as this is, resist the temptation to pet cattle. If you try, they will go from curious to scared.

Nervous

Nervous cattle hold their heads high to sight and sniff out danger. They clamp their tails tight against their bodies, and the whites of their eyes show. Do not put pressure upon a nervous animal. You might accidentally be standing between a mother and her calf. The best way for both of you to get back to enjoying your day is for you to quietly turn and walk away.

Animal behavior is a fascinating science, and if you want to learn more, join Jasmine’s next “Communing with Cattle” workshop.

By Jasmine Westbrook, project manager. Illustration courtesy of University of Madison, Wisconsin. Photo of cow and horses by Kimberly D’Amelio. Photo of white cow courtesy of Wiki Commons. All other photos by Jasmine Westbrook.

Ears cupped forward means these calves are curious, not scared.

Ears back means this cow is frightened.

This cow is trying to decide if you're scary or not.

These loafing cows are resting and digesting.

This cow is curious about the horses.