Origins: Senses: Communication
By Dr Clive Dalton
Origins and domestication
Cattle evolved into about 260 different breeds, types and varieties in different parts of world such as the Buffalo in North America and the Yak in China. Wild ancestors of today's cattle e.g. the Auroch, were hunted for meat. Early humans feared and respected the early cattle for the shape of their crescent-shaped horns, which they considered had religious significance.
Cattle were domesticated for milk and meat and finding ways to castrate and dehorn cattle greatly aided domestication. Cattle also provide hides for clothing and other sophisticated products used in pharmaceuticals. Cattle (oxen and buffalo) still provide power in the developing world as well as dung used for cooking and building. Cattle are also a measure of human wealth in parts of world, e.g. the Masai in Africa and in India they also have major religious significance.
Senses in cattle
- Cattle have a well-developed eye that sees some colour but not as much as humans and they generally avoid bright light if given preference.
- The position of each eye allows very wide peripheral vision along the side that alerts the cow to movement, which is then investigated using binocular vision.
- A good side view is useful for watching where other animals are during grazing with head down. So cattle have nearly 360° vision as they move around when grazing.
- Using two eyes, the cow has a much narrower binocular vision (about 25-50°).
- We exploit the wide peripheral vision when moving stock using their "point of balance" just behind the shoulder and in the centre of their head.
- Cattle have a narrow blind spot at the rear where they are vulnerable, so they move a lot to keep checking it out.
- A cow's eyes are designed to see down rather than up and when alarmed it will raise its head to investigate.
- A bull in fight response uses one eye to watch you, but its also getting his head ready for sideways swipe at same time.
- It has been accepted for a long time that cattle are colour blind or have a restricted colour range. The source of this statement is never quoted so has grown into folklore. Recent work by AgResearch at Ruakura training cows to follow yellow signs has been very successful so cattle can see colours. Cattle can also recognise the colour of peoples' clothing, especially if they are strangers who inflict pain or fear on them (e.g. vets).
- Cattle can recognise different people from their shape. They can also count, and associate more than one person with pain or stress of injections or forced handling.
- Cattle are sensitive to high frequency sounds which people cannot hear.
- These high frequency sounds can increase arousal and low tones are more relaxing for cattle.
- Music is regularly used in milking parlours to provide cows with a familiar background noise. It is no more than that and is useful in drowning out other sudden sound that may be stressful.
- Cattle have a better sense of smell than people.
- The smell of blood can cause great panic and is very obvious when cattle see others slaughtered.
- It's also seen when cattle pass paddocks treated with blood and bone fertiliser but for some unknown reason, this panic is not consistent.
- Cattle remember smells, e.g. when an operator who smokes has caused given them injections. When they smell the next smoker they remember the pain and react accordingly.
- Cows have a very sensitive skin and can shake flies off from localised areas.
- Cows respond to touch and use it as an important form of communication among each other. You see it where mutual grooming is important in cattle, especially in mature animals.
- Dams lick and groom their calves right up to weaning.
- Touch is important to warn cows at close quarters where you are when they cannot see you - e.g. when milking.
- One really bad experience by cattle will put them off all people for a considerable time till a positive human/animal bond is restored. They remember bad experiences for a long time.
- Adult cattle do actually sleep but only for very short intervals.
- The sleeping pose is with all four legs tucked underneath themselves and head turned to face the rear.
- Cattle must be well settled and comfortable before they will sleep. This has big implications for housed stock and design of cubicles so they have enough room for comfort and to avoid injury.
- If animals are disturbed at night, they will sleep more during the day.
- Cattle use a range of body signals to communicate with each other.
- They use their heads to bunt others out of the way. So we talk about the 'bunt order' in cattle and 'peck order' in birds.
- Their eyes have a key role and use "eyes down" to show submission, and "eyes up" to show confidence when moving into a group.
- Cows on heat use mounting behaviour to signal to other cows and the bull.
- Bulls use at least 5 signals with their heads:
- Normal relaxed position.
- Friendly approach before grooming by another cow.
- Threat approach - watching you with one eye and snorting.
- Submissive avoidance - pretending not to look.
- Withdrawal from conflict with head toss, snort and voiding faeces.
- Tail. It is raised high in play or great panic.
- The female's tail also slightly raised in heat and mild panic.