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I was recently asked how a cow sees the world and thought it would be worth posting something that I prepared for The Milk Maid Marian a number of years ago. The biology of how cows see the world and the behaviour that results is an interesting topic!

Where it all began…

Domestication of wild cattle began in the middle east more than 10,000 years ago. Consider domestication as an exchange. Cattle give us milk and meat and labour and in exchange we provide them with food, water, shelter from the environment and safety from predators.

Cave painting and sketch of a wild auroch

What our dairy cows’ ancestors looked like: the wild ox, or Auroch

As prey animals, cattle had to be constantly vigilant in order to detect and escape from potential predators. Their eyes are on either side of their heads and when they are grazing with their head down they can see almost 360°. However: most of this field is what we call monocular. Cattle can detect movement (i.e. the wolf hiding in the bushes) but they cannot judge depth or distance very well.

Binocular vision is what humans have: our eyes can focus quickly to perceive depth, distance and speed. Cattle only have binocular vision for the 25-30° right in front of them. To get the best possible view of something of interest, cows will lower their head and face the object straight on.

These cows are investigating the strange being lying on the ground taking photos of them!

Cows can distinguish red from green or blue but have difficulty distinguishing between green and blue (Phillips and Lomas, 2001, JDS 84:807-813). If you looked at the world through “cow-coloured” glasses you’d still be able to see colour, but perhaps not with the intensity that we can.

A graph showing how well cows see different wavelengths

Cow eyes can register wavelengths of around 450 nm and 550 nm (Jacobs et al 1998 Vis Neuro Sci 15:581-584). The human eye registers wavelengths from 400 nm to 700 nm and so will see red, green and blue equally.

Cows have horizontal pupils and weak eye muscles, which means they cannot focus on things quickly. Shadows and bright light will make them baulk. Consider a shadow cast across the dairy yard by a new bit of roof: is it a shadow? Or is it a deep, dark, snake-filled pit that they will fall into?!

comparison of a human and a cow pupil

Cows pupils are horizontal, compared with our round ones

How does a cow’s eyesight relate to safety?

While they might be able to see almost all around themselves while grazing, when a cow’s head is raised, there is a blind spot behind them. Approaching cows from the front, approaching them quickly and moving in or out of the rear blind spot can spook a cow.

When cows are moving, be patient and allow them time to lower their heads to examine things in front of them, particularly if they’re in a new environment. Cows may baulk at shadows, piping, drains or changes in floor texture because they can’t identify them as harmless.

A hand drawn diagram showing a cow's field of vision

A few safety tid-bits

Despite thousands of years of domestication, the behaviour of cows still closely resembles that of their wild ancestors. These ancient bovines used to react to wolves by running away – kicking as they ran – or by turning and fighting back by butting and goring.

If frightened or angry, cows defend themselves by using their head to bunt, horns (if they have them) to gore, and legs to kick. Stationary cows can kick forward to their shoulder and out to the side with their hind legs, while moving cattle kick directly backwards. Even down cows can be dangerous with their back legs – many of you will have seen this awful footage.

Heinrish Harter's painting of an Auroch fighting wolves

A wild Auroch fighting back!

Bulls and cows with calves can be especially dangerous: the following link shows a cow trampling a bear that got too close to her babe. Animals can turn on you in the blink of an eye and it’s important for everyone working with cattle remembers this and doesn’t get complacent.

Staying safe

As herd animals, cows all want to do the same thing at the same time. This is because it reduces the risk of predation: they confuse those wild lions by the large number of animals running in random directions. What this means for us is that cows are fearful when they are in solitary isolation. As vets we encounter this fairly regularly: an animal that quietly blends into the herd, but wants to attack you when you’re called on farm to examine it. Instead keep them with a friend or two and ensure everyone (including the vet!) knows which animal is to be seen/treated.

There are lots of other OH&S issues when working with cattle, but three important ones:

  • Always identify an escape route for yourself when working with cattle
  • Never be in front of animal in a race (they may run forward and squash you because they want to be with their herd mates!)
  • Always ensure there is a barrier behind you if you’re working in a race and other cows are still in the yard behind you (again, they may run forward and squash you)