Do cattle understand death?

20 Feb

Recently, I was talking to a beautiful girl in a bar and after we had gone through the normal, “Are you a real cowboy?” conversation, she made an interesting comment. She told me that she hasn’t been able to feel good about eating beef since she went by a large processing plant in South Dakota. So I asked her what made that such a traumatic experience. She stated that she could see all the cattle behind the plant and they were all screaming because they could smell the blood. “They were all terrified that they were going to die.”

Well, that brought up some interesting points. Do cattle understand their mortality? Are they afraid of the smell of blood? Are cattle terrified when they get to a processing plant? For those of us that are around cattle on a day-to-day basis, we understand that the answers to those questions are no, probably not, and hopefully not.

I’ve been raised around livestock my entire life. My first real memory is helping my mom pull lambs at three years old. In my experience, I’ve never seen an animal that seemed to understand that their life ends. Animals are lucky enough to live in the moment. They have no worries. They don’t worry if they are going to have enough food or water for tomorrow, if they are going to get sick, if their mortgage is due, if they are going to die. I’ve seen cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, donkeys, and horses repeatedly put themselves into situations that will put them into harm’s way or do things that could cause their deaths, and they seemed to have no understanding of the danger of what they were doing. I’ve seen cows nuzzle their calves to death, and continue butting them after they are dead, then forget them not two days later. It’s sad but it’s true. They just don’t seem to understand.

Now that is not to say that they don’t have fears. The fear of pain, the fear of being alone and the fear of the unknown are the main fears that we seen in livestock. These fears are the reasons that we handle animals using the techniques that we do and part of the reason that they can sometimes do illogical things that might hurt themselves or people.

The idea that cattle are afraid of the smell of blood is interesting. I don’t think cattle would have any idea what blood smells like or if they do they would have no understanding that it comes from them. They might be afraid because it is an unknown smell. But cattle have consumed blood meal for decades and they don’t seem to be afraid of it. Processing plants are very clean and though cattle have a keener sense of smell then I do, I could not smell blood except on the kill floor where cattle are bled out.

For those of you who haven’t been to a large facility, let me describe it for you from a steer’s eye view. When cattle are unloaded they come down an alley that has what I would call a “touch-less cow wash”. There are water nozzles that spray off every part of the animal to clean off as much mud and manure as possible. (Dirt and bacteria is the biggest enemy of a processing plant so as you go through you see that everything is very clean.) They go through a scale and then into a pen. The pens are concrete floored and clean with water in every pen. (The yard at most plants is washed at least twice daily.) If they stay overnight there is feed. All of the alleys and pens are built to guide cattle without people having to force them. After waiting in the pen, cattle are moved up wide alleys toward the plant. The people moving the cattle are quiet and at the last facility I was at have small sticks with plastic grocery bags attached to the ends.

As they move up the alleys, walls are solid and curved. Cattle naturally follow the curves and the alleys narrow until cattle directly in line. A conveyor belt moves up between the animals legs and they are lifted off their feet and moved to the stun box. Cattle come through the box and as their heads pop out, they are stunned with a captive bolt gun. This process is supervised by USDA veterinarians throughout, especially the stunning process. Most plants also have closed circuit video recording and are reviewed by third parties like Temple Grandin for animal welfare.

Animals in the pens do tend to vocalize more then what would be considered normal, but that is standard for cattle moved to a new place with new cattle around them. It is like people vocalizing more at a bar or sporting event. If cattle are nervous or stressed at slaughter, then they produce meat which is undesirable so every care is taken for them to be calm as they move into the plant. Most cattle move smoothly, following the curves and the cattle in front of them into the stun box. This is done for the safety of the cattle and people.

All I know is that as a producer, I hope that in all we do cattle are comfortable, calm, and feel safe when we care for them, when we handle them, and when we slaughter them. I hope that they can understand that we care even if some people don’t.

I explained all of this to the young lady and… that’s a story for another time and place.


Posted by on February 20, 2012 in Uncategorized


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11 responses to “Do cattle understand death?

  1. Farm the Start

    February 20, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    Whoa now! That conclusion brings to mind a blog by Tucker Max…yick.

    What I want to know is, how do they feel about the dead? At feedlots when I would go into a pen to remove the dead, you could often find a huddle of cattle around the dead one, licking or nudging it. (unless it was particularly rank, and then they seemed to just give it a bit of distance). Because of their sense of smell, I can’t believe that they would think the animal were still alive or be trying to “revive” it. So what causes this behavior?

    • Joe

      February 20, 2012 at 4:26 pm

      You bring up a good point, which I think has an easy answer. I don’t think cattle are feeling anything when they are investigating a dead in their pen, but are rather just being curious. If you throw a basketball, an empty barrel, or even lay down out there yourself, the cattle would have the same reactions. They would huddle around, sniff and lick you, because they don’t understand what you are. It is one of my favorite things to do to calm a group of cattle, sit down in the middle of their pen and let them get familiar. Cattle use their tongues like we use our hands, so the licking is normal behavior. There is also a video of Temple Grandin doing this with a NBC crew on Youtube (sorry can’t link from my phone).

      P.S. The story is not good enough for Tucker, so I left it out.

      • Farm the Start

        February 20, 2012 at 6:54 pm

        Very good thought. That is the only answer I could come up with also: Curiousity. But you would think if something were dead, they would leave it after a few minutes and move on. At least that’s what NatGeo tells us lions and things do…they leave the weak & dying/dead to protect the pride. I know those are predators, but both are herd/pride oriented. Think its just prey vs. predator? You’d still think, like wildebeest, they’d move away because instinct would tell them loitering around could cause them danger also. Which brings the possibility of environment: being in a pen. They could move away, but only a certain distance. And it seems all feedlot cattle are especially proactive about finding things to keep them occupied.Do you know what happens on open pasture? I only have the experience of smaller areas…how about those cattle in the large states who have free range over several miles? Know anyone who can attest whether they find deads alone or in the middle of a curious cluster?

  2. travis

    February 21, 2012 at 7:35 pm

    I can’t say this would happen in every case… but in my area of south Dakota a newly deceased cow in open range would attract curiosity for as long as it took for the coyotes to survive. Which would be the following evening. If its a calf, the mother would circle the calf for a day maybe. Then graze on. Another thing to think about is cattle on open range get usually a minimum 3 acres per head. While in a feed lot setting you have many many critters in a smaller area. Lot easier for them to notice. But no. Cattle don’t understand death. They understand very very little.

  3. Doc

    February 23, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    Cattle do have an appreciation of loss. Watch a cow that looses its calf at birth. Most will try to get it going for up to a few days. They are on edge and if locked away from the corpse many will tear down a fence to get back. I feel that cattle do react to blood. We kill some of our cattle at the ranch for processing on farm. The spot where they bleed out will produce a very profound reaction in other cattle for days, even after clean up. I feel cattle do have a sense of anxiety at packing facilities. The concrete floors used to keep things clean are very different and many times slippery. Cattle try to avoid these areas in nature because it makes them more vulnerable to preditors. Watch them walk on ice.

    • ruminationsfromtheroad

      February 24, 2012 at 3:53 am

      I agree of some of what you say. I think a mother feels a need to tend to her calf and has mothering instinct and a throbbing udder that she feeds the urge to be nursed. She really doesn’t understand that that the calf is dead. She will nudge it and lick it but doesn’t seem to understand why it doesn’t get up. Plus after a few days when she starts drying up she’ll forget and move back a a regular cycle. If you try to graft a calf after a couple of days, the cow is very likely to reject it because she feels little need to be nursed.

      The cattle at the large packing facilities I’ve been to stand around and chew their cud til they are moved. I probably didn’t describe the concrete in enough detail. It is broom or rake finished so it is rough, and typically is 24″ x 24″ raised squares to increase traction. It isn’t smooth concrete which I agree scares cattle but is rather textured and few cattle seem to have problems. Some high slippage areas have rubber weaves to add some traction and improve safety. Sorry for my lack of detail.

      Thanks for reading

  4. chluke

    February 24, 2012 at 11:43 am

    I don’t think cattle have the least “concept” of death. I think they are acutely aware of changes, disturbed at unexpected responses, disruptions to their routine and any variance from normal. I fortunately have little experience with stillborn calves, but I’ve seen plenty of first calf heifers, and even older cows walk away from a perfectly healthy calf. Doc, what I think you’re seeing with cattle avoiding bleed-out areas is their natural aversion to “repugnant zones”, the built-in response that helps them avoid pathogens and parasites. I’ve seen some pretty putrid remains in loafing areas, and the rest of the group only seem to care because the remains are taking up space.
    The anxiety at packing plants has more to do with their reaction to novel situations. For many cattle, novel situations are bad – think of castration, truck weaning and sale barns. By ensuing that cattle are properly handled from birth to processing, we can do what’s best for our cattle, our customers and ourselves.

  5. mcallen foreclosures

    March 11, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    great post! Keep up the great work!

  6. Kim D

    April 28, 2013 at 1:32 am

    I have been driving trucks up the north west of Australia , and have come across a lot that have been killed on the road. You always know that there will be cows gathering around a dead one .the thing I find very strange is that they will eat or chew on it after it starts to decompose .Just wondering why this is

  7. ruminationsfromtheroad

    May 23, 2013 at 12:54 am

    Kim… you are at a certain point and right up to a certain point cattle will lick and nudge a dead animal. Part of it is the typical socialization of animals. Cattle will lick and chew on on each other also on about anything new or different they encounter in their environment. It is part of their social structure and also how they familiarize themselves with different objects. Typically when I’m halter breaking animals, I will sit in their pen and they will lick, chew and nudge me. This helps them familiarize themselves with people for breaking purposes and is just part of their nature. Cattle seem to be afraid of things taller than them so a person sitting or laying is not a threat. Same for a laying animal (or a dead one). They are very curious creatures.


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