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Understanding Cattle Behavior - Part 3 - Hearing, Smell, Taste and Touch


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.


Cattle are very sensitive to high frequency sounds and have a wider range of hearing than humans (a human’s auditory range is from 64 to 23 000 Hz, cattle’s from 23 to 35 000 Hz). Despite having a greater range of auditory detection than people, cattle have greater difficulty in locating the origin of sounds and will use their sight to assist them determine the source. High pitched noises such as whistling are also unpleasant to cows. Intermittent sounds such as clanging of metal (e.g. gates), shouting and whistling can be particularly stressful, especially if they are sudden and at a loud volume


Due to their evolution as prey animals, cattle have a very acute sense of smell. Cattle select their feed on the basis of smell and can detect odors many miles away. They will avoid places containing urine from stressed animals, and for this reason may be reluctant to enter places where cattle have been previously handled such as raceways and cattle crushes. They dislike the smells of dung and saliva, so when housed, their feeding area needs to be kept clean and smell fresh, not contaminated with dung, saliva or exudate from other cows’ noses. Herd hierarchy is strongly linked to smell, as shown by studies where the social order among cows was unaltered by blindfolding them.

As well as a sensitive nose, they have an additional olfactory sensitive organ, called the vomeronasal organ, on the roof of their mouth. The reception of odors by this organ is used for the reinforcement and maintenance of sexual interest. When seeking and finding a suitable cow on heat, this is characterized by the ‘flehman expression’ in mating bulls, in which the head is directed upwards with the mouth ajar, the tongue flat and the upper lips curled back. This is thought to aid odor sampling by allowing air to contact the roof of the mouth during inhalation. Bulls appear to increase their olfactory behavior about four days before cows show signs of oestrus. The production and detection of pheromones is another way cattle seek out suitable stock for mating. For this reason, cows on heat spend much time sniffing and licking the anal and vaginal areas of other cows.

Other pheromones convey fear. Cattle respond to pheromones produced in fearful situations by increasing their own physiological stress response and fear behaviors. Cattle are also sensitive to the odors of potential predators, like dogs, spending more time sniffing the air and in cautious movement. In comparison to humans, cattle are able to detect much smaller differences in odor concentration.


There are four primary tastes identifiable in cattle. These are:

● sweetness (associated with energy supply)

● saltiness (associated with electrolyte balance)

● bitterness (assists to avoid toxins and tannins that reduce the nutritive value of plants)

● acidity (linked to pH balance).

The taste receptors are located in specific areas of the tongue, with differences between cattle and humans in their taste discrimination, sensitivity and location on the tongue. Cattle have two to three times as many taste buds as humans, and so are more sensitive to tastes. Cattle can be apprehensive when it comes to eating novel food – feed with unfamiliar tastes and smells. For example, they need artificial sweeteners to mask bitter tastes such as zinc in water.


Skin receptors are used to detect pressure, movement, temperature and some damaging pathological conditions such as inflammation. Humans have increased sensitivity in their fingertips whereas cattle often use their extended mouth as a sampling tool in exploratory situations.

Cattle perceive extreme ambient temperatures, relative humidity and/or wind speed through thermoreceptors, skin dryness (particularly in the throat and nasal passages) and mechanoreceptors. They learn their comfort or thermoneutral zones, above and below which they must use physiological processes to sustain their core body temperatures. They then modify their behavior accordingly, such as seeking cooler locations during hot weather to find more favorable microclimates. As the lower critical temperature of adult cows is −23°C, they are rarely affected by cold stress. Heat stress is a common problem, at 21°C cattle increase their respiration rate, and at 25°C, above which they reduce feed intake to reduce metabolic heat production from rumen fermentation.

Breed differences also influence the susceptibility of cattle to heat loads. Factors like higher metabolic rate, greater amounts of body fat and thicker coats all increase the likelihood of cattle suffering from heat stress. These breed differences are important considerations in the tropics.

Interestingly, cattle can readily detect low-level electric current, which often exists in milking parlors where wet conditions and connection of machinery to their udders make cattle prone to stray voltage. As the resistance provided by humans is two to 10 times greater (depending on footwear), the level of current that will disturb cows is much lower than it is for humans.


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


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