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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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    0.59 cow-related deaths/year within the entire United Kingdom.
    Youtube v=mqmtQR6MA-0 v=VIvndWcMuAM
    We must legislate bovine surcease, now!

    • Emkay

      ….

  • AndrewW

    1. Don’t take the pet dog close to cattle
    2. Don’t approach cows with young calves
    3. Don’t stroll through a herd of bulls (especially Jersey bulls)

    Was that so hard?

    • Bill C

      Bulls come in herds?

      • OWilson

        How about “droves” ?

        • Jim Nielsen

          Murders. Covens. Bevies. Troops.

          • OWilson

            Klatches?

      • http://teejaw.com/ TeeJaw

        Several bulls are likely to be separated from cows so you could find 5-10 bulls in a separate enclosure on breeding farms or bull semen operations.

        • Bill C

          Bull semen!

    • frank87

      4. If a cow comes at you, kick her between the horns (if the horns are to high, she wasn’t attacking you. Step aside)
      5. If a cow puts her head on your shoulder: jump away, or she will jump on you (and tell the farmer she is in heat).
      6. Stay away from bulls.

      • OWilson

        If a bull comes at you brandishing a lethal banana, always eat the banana, thus disarming him!

        • The Pathetic Earthling

          What if he’s got a pointed stick?

          • OWilson

            There’s one in every crowd!

            Now where were we?

            Oh yeah, if a bull comes at you with……

      • Vizzini

        If a cow comes at you, kick her between the horns (if the horns are to high, she wasn’t attacking you. Step aside)

        That’s got to be the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Right between the horns is the toughest, least sensitive spot on the cow’s entire body. They can bend steel with the spot between their horns.

        • Mallet Head

          but .. but .. sputter .. sputter .. you’re a racist

          • Vizzini

            I treat all my cattle the same, regardless of their color.

          • Mallet Head

            Bold steak-ment to utter, very cowragous and moo-ving. You should milk if for all it’s worth

        • http://thinkware.se Magnus Lyckå

          A cousin shot his crazy bull between the eyes with a moose rifle from a short distance, and it only made it more irritated. My cousin was on top of a tractor driven by his brother, and they rapidly relocated, so that he could shoot it in the heart from the side.

  • Harold Bakker

    Cows have extremely sensitive noses so if they’re being pushy you can try to give their nose a firm push to get them to back off. This will not be helpful when charged at full speed, obviously.

    • Adrianna Jackson

      Where do you get these ideas, just stay away. Hitting them in the noise is probably a sure fire way to get killed.

      • Vizzini

        No, he’s right. Obviously the best thing for someone who has no business getting that close is not to get that close in the first place, but a sharp crack of a rope or stick to the nose is what I use to get my cattle to back off when I need to.

  • OWilson

    As a U.K. ex pat, we kids always faced a dilemma.

    Walk the long way around the field, and stay safe, or take a chance on a short cut across, and make a run for it.

    If there were bulls, it was a no brainer.

    But rams and “billy”goats were often more of a danger, because they were fearless.

    It is an issue mainly in the U.K. where the public’s right to cross the countryside has been recently re-enshrined.

    In Canada’s farm country, ironically, except for public parks, everything is fenced off.

  • http://givemeaplacetostandearth.blogspot.com Place to stand

    Stay close to a fence, keep the dog with you and don’t run – as a Londoner not long resident in a rural community this is a rite of passage ! Highland cows seem jolly friendly…

  • Ben Bruner

    can i have a pair of your panties

  • Soarintothesky

    Dairy cattle and beef cattle are very different. Beef cattle are very placid. Dairy cattle, especially males can be aggressive. I’ve happily jogged 10 feet away from a Hereford bull – don’t try this at home – he was a nice bull and all his wives were present. I wouldn’t go into the same field as any dairy bull. And walking through a herd of Holsteins after dark is not an experience I wish to repeat.

    • OWilson

      I would have thought that walking through any cow field after dark can be a, shall we say, problem? :)

      • Adrianna Jackson

        Or walking through the National Forest filled with Range Cattle!

        • OWilson

          I was referring to those freshly made steaming pies on the ground :)

          • Adrianna Jackson

            You need to stay away from those too! Unless you need to start a fire.

          • Rob Neff

            Maybe in the UK. In the US, cows stay out overnight typically. (This helps with cowtipping, which is talked about a lot more than actually done).

          • Vizzini

            Cow-tipping is a myth. Even if it were possible, you’d have to be insane to try. Who wants to be standing two feet away from 1000 pounds of pissed-off, panicked cow (and its sisters) in the dark, when they have better night vision than you?

          • Emkay

            In Tennessee we call those ‘meadow muffins’

        • annette

          I have been stalked by a bull walking through a National Forest who appeared very aggressive. In the end, I doubled back behind him to frighten him off. Another time, I had a relatively small herd of range cattle ( ~20) running toward me and I waved a large stick at the lead animals at almost the last minute which caused them to alter direction and not trample me.

    • Bonny Krahn

      I don’t think you have been around beef cattle much. We have coyotes and cougars that can bother them here at night. They can protect themselves. Unless they are raised as pets give them space and even then once the bulls mature you don’t mess with them. I’ve seem them in rodeos so fierce a horse wouldn’t get in the arena with them. There have been plenty of 40+ year old ranchers that bottle fed calves and thought them gentle as adults only to be stomped in the ground by them. They say “I’ve been around cattle all my life”. But they got too relaxed and let their guard down. I’ve seen people hurt by them unintentionally also. We had a very tame red brahma bull that loved his head rubbed but you never got between him and a fence or he would rub up against you and shove you right into it. This is in Texas.

      • Soarintothesky

        I come from the Welsh mountains near Hereford. In my childhood and youth I was around cattle at weekends (and I was always scared of the stock). I do agree with you about cowmen who get trapped between a bull (always a bull) and the wall of a stall. I knew, slightly, two people who died that way and one who was badly injured. Personally, I do keep my distance when crossing a field. Cattle are short sighted; so staying out of range is possible. The bull I referred to was an exception – pet calf, past his prime. Oh well. I’m still here.

      • Vizzini

        I have beef cattle, (including Texas longhorn hybrids) and yes, they can be fierce when protecting their herd, but studies show that it is generally the dairy bulls that are the most aggressive.

        Part of it may be differences in breed temperament, but I think part of it is that dairy bulls are frequently not kept with their herds. Bulls get neurotic and crazy when kept isolated. A beef bull who lives every day with his girls is a happy bull.

        Dairy animals are also handled a lot more and are thus less intimidated by humans, which increases the chances for unpleasant interactions.

        So, while the beef cattle may actually be more savvy and capable in the wild, the fact that their natural inclination is to keep their distance from humans, and that the humans frequently work with them from horseback or with dogs, or from behind panels in tense situations means less accidents.

        I have to walk right in the middle of my herd every week when I’m tipping hay rings down on top of round bales, and it can get a little intimidating, even though they’re used to me and really more interested in the hay. I stay very wary — accidentally getting between two of them having a disagreement with each other over who gets to the hay is probably the most likely way to get hurt in that situation.

        • LoisAnneMT

          A friend of mine was moving bulls from one pen to the other on foot. Never did find out why he was on foot, but he ended getting squashed between the gate and a panel when two bulls decided to go through at the same time. In addition to various broken bones, he sustained a TBI that left him disabled and his brain rather wonky.

          • Vizzini

            That’s a shame. It’s a dangerous way of life, no doubt.

    • Rob Neff

      Disagree. Beef cattle are typically not handled as much as dairy cattle, which interact with people twice a day, every day. Beef cattle can therefore be more nervous around people.

    • Jim Nielsen

      Male beef cattle are usually castrated and become pretty placid. They’re called “steers.” And male dairy cattle are usually eaten early on and called “veal,” Male dairy cattle that make it to adulthood with their junk intact are there because they are alpha males…

  • Chad Weber

    PSA: Anyone or anything that goes after my dog will get stabbed in the eyes.

    • frank87

      You don’t have to. Dogs can handle cattle atacks on their own.

      • Bonny Krahn

        Not so, here in Texas we get farm dogs, mostly Great Pyrenees, dumped in our neighborhood that have been kicked by a cow and have broken hips. It happens.

        • Soarintothesky

          That’s why Corgis are good cattle dogs. Too small to kick.

    • Adrianna Jackson

      Good luck with that…have you even seen a bull or cow?

    • Vizzini

      Stupid plan.

    • Emkay

      stabbing requires too close a proximity to whatever is trying to harm your dog… I just shoot my .45 pistol…..

  • Overburdened_Planet

    So don’t risk your life trying to save your dog’s life.

    Got it.

    • Vizzini

      Your dog generally has a better chance without you getting in the way. My dogs are out with my cattle frequently and they’ve been chased. They can outrun and outmaneuver the cattle.

      • Overburdened_Planet

        It makes more sense for dogs to try and escape, or if feeling playful, to call them and not get near cattle, except I imagine humans might not be able to successfully run away, which reminds me of awful stories regarding matadors and bulls in the ring, but they took the risk.

      • Emkay

        most dogs will turn a menacing cow into a feint and run game… until the cow gets tired and stops…

      • AndrewW

        The real danger with pet dogs is when they go to you for safety.

      • LoisAnneMT

        Except when you have a silly wannabe cowdog of a Chihuahua mix who decided herding cattle was a great way to run off steam. Two trips up and down the pasture and the cattle had enough. They turned on the speed and chased him to the hot wire fence where he ducked under. No way was I running in there after him. All was well and I kept him leashed whenever the cattle were in that field after that.

  • Bonny Krahn

    Add my Uncle Tom Ledbetter to this list. He died after a Brahama Bull stomped him. He raised them for rodeos but always said they were gentle in the pasture. He crawled under his truck to get away from it. However a few weeks later he died from a brain aneurysm as a result.

    • Rob Neff

      My uncle got attacked by a cow that cornered him in the barn. He was lucky to get away with just some serious shoulder injuries. I doubt he was included in that list they compiled, as I’m sure it was not in the papers. He’s been a farmer all his life.

  • Haigha

    I had a bull act aggressively and make little runs at me once when I was crossing a field on a public footpath near Arundel. I took out my plastic tent poles and smacked them against my hand repeatedly. That kept him away, and I was able to cross the field, staying close to the fence, and get back the same way.

    In the next field, a couple of cows in a feedlot (among a herd) faced me and sort of capered, like excited dogs. I’m still not sure if they were being aggressive or friendly.

    • Vizzini

      I’m still not sure if they were being aggressive or friendly.

      In the end, it doesn’t really matter. I have a bottle-fed ox in my herd, and he’s prone to excited capering like that. Whether he’s engaged in calf-like play or trying to fend off a threat is irrelevant when 2,000 pounds of ox is dancing on top of you. He’s the most dangerous animal in my herd, including the bull, precisely because he’s friendly and not afraid to approach people.

      • Emkay

        always….be careful..

  • Jim Nielsen

    Growing-up, I heard about the practice of “cow tipping” from country-dwelling cousins, who insisted that it’s an actual practice and a veritable fount of mirth. I actually attempted cow tipping a couple times during high school – to no avail. Cows don’t tip as easily as the rural-myths suggest. In a search to verify whether or not a cow has ever actually been tipped, I have come-up completely confounded. If it were real, it’d be on youtube…

    • Celebrim

      A physicist could tell you its a myth.

    • Bill in Tennessee

      Cow tipping, like snipe hunts, is a euphemism for other teenage nocturnal behaviors. Like drinking beer, and hormone-fueled pairing off and noodlng under the stars. When asked what they were doing out so late, cow tipping is an easy, if flip, answer.

    • Emkay

      right! if it ain’t on youtube it never happened…

  • gvanderleun

    Elizabeth, unfortunate lass, you are far too hard up for subjects to write about. See if you can get your keepers to release you into the wild from time to time.

  • stubbs

    The easiest way to get killed by a cow is to drive in Mexico after dark. They are all over the roads, since the best grass is next to the pavement. By the way, shoulders you can park on or skid to in an accident are also freqently not there, so running off the road can mean an overturned car.

  • http://teejaw.com/ TeeJaw

    Not all cows are the same. Herefords are less aggressive than Guernseys and Jerseys. Dairy cow bulls are especially dangerous. Long horns may look lazy and dossal but if you need to cross a pasture where they are grazing it would be best to be on an ATV, or better yet a horse. Savvy ranch dogs are no problem around cattle, city dogs are very vulnerable.

  • disgustedvet

    Any large animal presents a potential threat but as a boy who grew up on a farm and having neighbors and relatives who had dairy herds and beef cattle it was the bulls you had to watch out for . The cows were placid creatures . Now the hogs were a different story .

  • dewdrop38

    I was chased by a bull once when I was a kid. Really scary situation. I got to the fence before he did. Cows are not very smart. They get something in their head and there is no talking them out of it.

  • Lynn Starrs

    Far far more people are injured by dogs. Far far far more. And some even killed, especially children.

  • joseph2237

    Holy cow…how embrassing can you get…to be killed by a cow. Had a fight with my dinner and the dinner won!

  • Becca

    Most domesticated animals are more dangerous than wild animals. Wild animals tend to stay away, domesticated ones have some level of human contact so the fear isn’t there. Being chased by an angry bull is certainly no fun! Be aware when you are out on a hike especially if you know cattle or any other livestock might be there, give them space, stay away from young, and don’t surprise them.

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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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