Understanding Cattle Behavior - Part 6 - Communication


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.

Visual Communication

Visual signs are one of the main methods used by cattle to communicate, particularly to indicate aggressive and reproductive states. The signals of aggression displayed by bulls take the form of lowering of the head, drawing the chin towards the body and inclining the horns to the opponent, signalling their intention to charge by pawing the ground.

In cows, the threat is less forceful and generally involves head swinging for aggressive displays and turning away as a submissive signal.

The Tail

The tail is an important signalling device in cattle. The tail will usually be held horizontal during defecation and urination. If, together with the head, it is elevated, this often indicates an exploratory situation to investigate the source of some stimulus. Tails are also elevated during oestrus display, fighting, threats, greetings, suckling and homosexual activities in both males and females. Conversely when the tail is held between the legs, this indicates the animal is cold or frightened or fearful. Lateral movements of the tail are often used for fly removal, but can be a response to more general cutaneous irritations such as rubbing or stimulation such as of vulva or penis during sexual behavior. Tail swishing is also common when cattle are being irritated. Cows will wag their tail as a threat if they are about to kick. Tail swishing can also be performed in response to painful stimuli.

Facial Expressions

Facial expressions are of less importance because the facial musculature is less well developed than in other species, and the distance between animals would often preclude the use of facial gestures as signals. Some obvious signals are present, as in the flehman response in relation to oestrus. Situations causing arousal (surprise, alarm, distress) will cause an increase in the size of the white of the eye surrounding the pupil. Conversely, cattle often perform routine behaviors, such as eating, ruminating or lying with their eyes half closed, which may be an indication of relaxation.


Ear movement may also be involved in expressive behavior, as they are in sheep, but this is yet to be researched. Ear postures will change in response to auditory signals, allowing the cow to locate the direction of a sound.


Grooming is primarily a body care activity but it has additional benefits. Cattle groom each other (allogrooming), usually the head and neck region of animals that are of similar or slightly subordinate positions in the dominance order. They may groom each other to maintain dominance position, to reinforce family bonds and those between adult cattle. Providing the opportunity for animals to interact and perform these behaviors is important.

Vocal Communication

Vocal communication is used in recognition, eliciting contact as well as greetings, threats and fear display. Certain types of calls are associated with specific behaviors or emotional states. With calves, the calls during isolation are of lower frequency and carry further than during branding, perhaps suggesting greater stress. As an animal becomes more excited or distressed, the duration, volume and pitch of the calls increase. Vocalizations have been categorized and calls fall into five ‘main syllables’ based on the mouth, tongue and nasal placement and the speed of air leaving the throat (Phillips 2002). Other classifications use amplitude, pitch, tonality and length to interpret the message of different calls. Calls change as the animal ages, and bulls tend to vocalize more than cows and steers. The frequency of vocalizations can be used as an indicator of cattle welfare in abattoirs and during handling. Vocalizations can also indicate pain. However, as yet, no specific meaning has been attributed to different calls.


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