Understanding Cattle Behavior - Part 4 - Fear


As a prey species, cattle have an inherent fear of unfamiliar objects, situations, smells, sudden movements and noises. As well they can experience fearfulness in situations where they are solitary or isolated. Understanding this is critical to managing them in a low stress manner

It is important for every cattle owner to understand cattle behavior (what cattle do) and why they do what they do. It will not only aide us in using safer and more effective cattle handling techniques, it can also improve our overall herd living quality as we accommodate the natural tendencies inherent in cattle relative to their five body senses, the various ways stock communicate with each other and their keepers and behavioral problems arising from clashes with their environment.

Fear and its implications

Fear is the response to a real or perceived threat and serves to protect the animal from danger. As they have evolved as prey animals, cows are naturally reactive or fearful in several different situations, including a fear of novelty. As a result cattle can find unfamiliar objects, situations and smells and sudden movements and noises frightening. This is exacerbated when they are solitary or isolated. It is for this reason that gentle handling, repeated exposure to situations or environments and a consistent routine can help to create calm animals.

Improved cow movement and milk yield are measurable benefits arising from ‘cow friendly’ facility design and stock handling practices. In the same way that cows can learn to become relaxed if they are treated well and exposed to stimuli in a consistent, calm way, they can also learn to fear an environment, situation or handler.

Below are examples of situations that commonly elicit fear in cattle:

● Sudden movements or noises are very threatening to cows. Moving and handling animals in a calm, quiet way can significantly reduce fear. Associated fear behaviours (such as startling, baulking, fleeing) can result when cattle interpret some relatively common situations as threats, such as heights, sudden movement, sudden noises, threatening or aggressive actions, prolonged eye contact and large or towering objects. These evolutionary threats can be minimised through good dairy and shed design and thoughtful stock handling.

● Cows can find novelty fearful, and are generally afraid of sudden changes to facilities and routines. Keeping environmental features such as lighting, floor surfaces or levels, and fences or wall types as consistent as possible will help to reduce fear. If cows become fearful in a new situation, try and allow them some time to familiarise themselves with the new environment before introducing further changes or other stressful procedures. Rushing cows when they are slow because of novelty (and so are fearful) will exacerbate the issue.

● Cows will fear humans if handled poorly and they associate this poor handling with the place where it occurred. Using the cows’ natural behaviour to guide handling and other interactions will minimise fear responses.

● Fear can make handling and milking harder, more time consuming and more dangerous. It can also delay milk letdown (for up to 20 min) and reduce milk yields (by up to 20%).

● Fear responses during movement make cows more prone to slipping, falling and injuries (e.g. pelvic and hip injuries due to falling, hoof injuries during slipping leading to lameness, for example) and compromise their welfare. Improved cow movement and milk yield are measurable benefits arising from ‘cow friendly’ facility design and stock handling practices.

Repeated exposure to these sorts of events will result in cattle displaying fear in anticipation of a situation. As a result, they will be more flighty and difficult to handle. With gentle handling and routine, cows will be easier to move, easier to milk, and will let down more milk.


Others topics in this series - Available now

1. The Development of Cow Behavior

2. Vision

3. Hearing, Smell, Taste and Touch

4. Fear

5. Movement

6. Communication

Coming Soon

7. Pain

8. Improve Flow

9. Reproductive Behavior

10. Cow-Calf Bonding

11. Social Dynamics

12. Temperament

13. Impact of the Cow Handler

14. Aggression