How Not to Get Killed by a Cow

By Elizabeth Preston | February 2, 2016 4:20 pm

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Between 1993 and 2015, cattle killed 13 people who were out for walks in the United Kingdom. Dozens more walkers received broken bones or other injuries from the animals.

Murderous cattle are an understudied phenomenon, say veterinarian Angharad Fraser-Williams and other researchers at the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom. So they scoured news articles and scientific literature to learn about cattle attacks over two decades. They turned up some advice for people wishing to avoid a fight with a bovine. First: don’t try to save your dog.

In the United Kingdom, the authors explain, public paths in the countryside often cross through farmland. This means people out for a stroll may find themselves face-to-face with herds of grazing cattle. To find out how often these encounters turned ugly, the researchers hunted through scientific literature for papers including the terms “cow” or “bovine” plus “attack” or “injury.” When they narrowed the results down to papers about attacks on humans, they were left with only eight.

Likewise, they searched UK newspaper archives from 1993 to 2013. This time they turned up 89 relevant articles. They also searched the Internet for British webpages about “best practice for walking among cattle.”

Much more dangerous than simply hiking through the countryside, it turned out, is working with cattle directly. Dairy and beef farmers, vets, and slaughterhouse workers incur the most cattle-caused injuries. The most common injuries are broken bones from being kicked, but there are also deaths from being trampled or just accidentally walked on by the heavy animals. An American study looked specifically at attacks by bulls, rather than cows. Most of these cases were in the United States. Over 28 years, the authors found 149 fatal incidents.*

Among walkers in the British countryside, the University of Liverpool researchers found reports of 54 cattle attacks over the two decades of their study. Of these, 13 resulted in a fatality. The most deadly year was 2009, when there were 13 attacks and 4 deaths. Injuries included “fractures to arms, ribs, wrist, scapula, clavicle, legs, lacerations, punctured lung, bruising, black eyes, joint dislocation, nerve damage and unconsciousness.”

The scientific literature revealed some reasons cattle might attack. One is maternal behavior. Mother cows see humans as a threat to their calves, and they may take action to protect a calf if a person gets too close.

Even more threatening to cattle than humans, another study found, are dogs. Cattle are especially vigilant when dogs are nearby.

The newspaper articles bore this out. About two-thirds of the cattle attacks involved dogs. In at least two cases, people were killed while trying to protect their dogs, which had spooked the cattle.

The researchers found plenty of advice online about how to walk safely through cattle, some of it inconsistent: Walk boldly through the middle of a herd. No, go around the herd instead. Carry a walking stick. Keep quiet and move calmly. Wave your arms and shout if the cattle threaten you.

Certain pieces of advice come up often, though, and seem wise based on what the researchers found: Be careful around mothers and their calves. Keep your dog close. And if cattle charge your dog, let go of its leash—don’t try to pick it up or protect it.

More research would help reveal the reasons for fatal attacks, the authors write, as well as their frequency. It would also be helpful to have a centralized database where people could report cattle attacks. Finally, senior author Carri Westgarth, an epidemiologist, notes the cattle that were indirectly responsible for this study:

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Image: by Tim Green (via Flickr)

Fraser-Williams, A., McIntyre, K., & Westgarth, C. (2016). Are cattle dangerous to walkers? A scoping review Injury Prevention DOI: 10.1136/injuryprev-2015-041784

*Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the number of years included in the bull-attack study as 3, not 28.

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Inkfish

Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.

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