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CONTRIBUTOR(S): Vetstream Ltd, Sophie Mahendran,

Behavior in cattle

Behavior in cattle

This factsheet offers advice on how to recognize, interpret and manage cattle behavior.

Friesian cattle
©Al Manning


Dominant behavior


It's normal for some animals to be more dominant than others. Subtle signs, such as a toss of the head, displacing another cow from the feed face or less time spent waiting to enter the parlour are more common in dominant cows.

A common, but subtle, sign of dominance is when a cow/ bull stands square on to either another cow or a person, often staring side on and may show the whites of the eye. This is how cattle display their physical stature to each other and is often a pre-cursor to more overt aggressive behavior.

Social hierarchy is important in a herd and once established the number of negative interactions
between animals is reduced.

Dominance is based on age, weight, sex, presence of horns, territory and time in the herd.

Social hierarchy is disrupted by the introduction or removal of animals, so aim to minimize changes to the herd.

Dominance is more prominent when resources are limited, so ensure there is sufficient feed, cubicle space etc for all animals.


Overt aggression is uncommon.

Aggression may manifest as charging at humans or other animals, mounting humans, kicking or head butting. It may be normal or abnormal.

Normal aggressive behavior may include a dam protecting her calf, young heifers/bulls post-puberty, cows on heat, playful behavior amongst bulls or a response to fear. These examples are of normal aggression and do not require any actions to rectify.

Abnormal aggression may be an indicator of pain or disease, ie nervous ketosis or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy/BSE. In these cases it is important to detect and treat the cause of the pain or disease.

Behavior involving the head

Bar biting

Clamping jaws around a bar and moving head back and forth is abnormal behavior, associated with intensive housing conditions. Restricted space is thought to prevent normal grazing/ruminating behavior, resulting in this stereotypical behavior.

Improving housing conditions, reducing stocking density, allowing appropriate exercise per day and increasing hay/straw in the diet can help.

Tongue rolling

When the animal curls and uncurls the tongue inside or outside their mouth. This is an abnormal behavior associated with intensive housing conditions. Restricted space is thought to prevent normal grazing/ruminating behavior, resulting in this stereotypical behavior.

Improving housing conditions, reducing stocking density, allowing appropriate exercise per day and increasing hay/straw in the diet can help.

Tooth grinding (bruxism)

Bruxism is an abnormal behavior that is often associated with pain. The cause of the pain should be ascertained, and appropriate treatment and pain relief provided.

Consult your veterinary surgeon for assistance.

Excessive licking

This involves continual licking of other animals, bars, stall, etc. This is abnormal behavior and may be associated with diseases such as nervous ketosis, or with stress associated with management systems, it can be associated with mineral deficiencies and lack of fiber in the diet.

With so many possible causes, it is advisable to work closely with your veterinarian to ascertain the cause.

Eye rolling

This is movement of the eye in the eye socket in the absence of any visible stimuli. Eye rolling is commonly observed in downer cows due to the stress of their situation. It may also be seen in animals affected by tetanus infection and in dying animals.

Animals presenting with eye-rolling require prompt veterinary intervention.


Flehmen is when the animal curls it's upper lip. This is normal cattle behavior.

It allows the animal to transfer odorant chemicals into the vomeronasal organ and is often observed in bulls, when they are detecting which cows are in estrous (heat).

Head pressing

Pressing the head against a wall or corner of the stall/pen. This is abnormal behavior and may indicate disease such as hepatic encephalopathy, brain abscess, lead poisoning, ketosis, cerebrocortical necrosis and more. 

Animals exhibiting head pressing must receive prompt veterinary care.

Head tilt

The head tilts to one side and stays tilted to either the right or left. This is abnormal behavior.

Head tilt may indicate a condition involving the brain or spinal cord, such as listeria or an abscess. It can also signify trauma to the neck or head region, or a problem related to the ear.

Animals exhibiting head tilt should receive prompt veterinary care.


hen the animal is shaking their head in the absence of stimuli. This can be an indicator of pain or stress, but can also be associated with disease, such as diseases of the head or "Shaker calf syndrome" in new-born Hereford calves.

You veterinarian should be consulted for advice.


The head and neck are raised straight up as if the affected animal is gazing at the stars. This is abnormal and may indicate conditions such as meningitis, cerebrocortical necrosis or lead poisoning.

Consult your veterinarian.

Walking behavior


Animal walks in circles, consistently clockwise or anti-clockwise. Walking in circles is often accompanied by a head tilt. This behavior may indicate a condition involving the brain or spinal cord, such as listeria or an abscess. It can also signify trauma to the neck or head region, or a problem related to the ear. 

Your veterinarian should be contacted for advice.

Incoordination and staggering

Walking and moving unsteadily can be an indicator for a number of conditions, including urea poisoning, BSE, hepatic encephalopathy, meningitis, cerebrocortical necrosis, cerebellar hypoplasia, lead poisoning, brain abscess and more.

Your veterinarian should be consulted.

Muscle twitching/tremors/shivering

Spontaneous twitching of muscles in the absence of any stimuli is abnormal. It may be a normal response if the animal is simply shivering from cold (in which case appropriate shelter and bedding should quickly be provided). Causes may include milk fever, cold stress, organophosphate poisoning and urea poisoning.

Your veterinarian should be consulted.

Propulsive tendency

Cows are inquisitive and may try to force their way through gates etc and become stuck. Some neurological problems can cause animals to propel themselves forward for no obvious reason, for example due to listeria or a brain abscess. For this reason, an animal that has become trapped or is often getting stuck should be checked over by your veterinarian.

Temperament changes


Increased sensitivity to stimuli, such as noise, touch and light may be associated with conditions such as milk fever, staggers, BSE, tetanus and rabies.

Your veterinarian should be consulted.


Timid and apprehensive behavior such as shying away from people may be normal behavior and may be noticed if the normal routine is changed, an animal is isolated or joins a new herd/group.

If a normally confident and friendly animal becomes nervous then there may be a medical reason, such as ketosis or BSE and veterinary advice should be sought.

Sexual behavior


Sexual behavior is normal for cattle (mating, mounting, masturbation and homosexual behavior are often observed), but sometimes abnormal sexual behavior may be seen, such as nymphomania (frequent estrous, aggressive bulling behavior, bellowing, mounting).

Sometimes, such behavior is as a result of management problems and may be associated with stress or boredom. However, there may be medical issues related to hormones, ovarian cysts or genetic flaws.

Treatments may include castration of male animals, hormone treatment of female animals or management changes.

If a certain animal is being bullied by herd mates, then consider separating it with less dominant animals for its safety.

Lack of libido in bulls

A bull may refuse to mount cows, avoid cows in estrous and be unable to develop an erection. This may be because he is a young, inexperienced bull, that the ratio of cows:bull is too great, he may be stressed or there may be a medical reason such as lameness, a penile injury or deformity or genuine impotence.

The bull is "half your herd", seek veterinary input as soon as you spot a problem with your bull.

Vulval licking by bulls

Licking the vulva and genital regions of cows. This is normal behavior and usually occurs as part of the pre-sexual excitement of copulation. Fluid is transferred to a spur on the dental pad and then to the vomeronasal organ as part of pheromone identification.

Maternal behavior

Lack of mothering behavior

A dam that is not interested in her calf may present as not grooming the calf, aggression towards the calf or not allowing the calf to suck. A lack of mothering behavior often follows a long or difficult birth or may occur if many birthing animals are housed together, resulting in stress to the dam. 

Ensure the cow has had all necessary pain relief, medical input, food, water and a comfortable bed. House the cow away from herd mates in a quiet location. Keep the calf safe, while you care for the mother and provide colostrum as necessary.

Self-harm behavior


Where the animal is sucking her own teats to get milk. This is more common in young lactating animals. It may be stress-related, especially if cows are intensively housed.

Treatment may involve anti-suck nose rings, harnesses or bitter substances applied to teats. In extreme and refractory cases, the animal may have to be culled from the milking herd.


Self-sucking cattle may severely damage their teats. This behavior is usually linked to either a painful udder like severe udder edema, or painful teats such as teat necrosis.

Ask your veterinary surgeon for advice.

Other behaviors


When an animal is sucking the teat of another, with the intention of sucking milk. This behavior may be learned early in life due to poor housing and competitive feeding methods or under-feeding of milk to calves.

Improving housing and management should help. Nose rings or harnesses may be considered, but veterinary advice should be sought.

Herd isolation

An animal alone and remaining separate to the herd may be normal, in the case of a cow about to calve, but is often abnormal and a sign that all is not well. The animal may be ill, old, weak or being bullied within the herd.

Examine the animal and seek veterinary advice as necessary.

Separation anxiety

Cattle are ‘herd’ animals, an isolated animal will usually try to re-join the herd. An isolated animal may bellow, run away/try to escape, become agitated, refuse to be driven.

Try to avoid isolating cattle from the herd.

Urine drinking

Cows drinking their own or other cows’ urine/slurry is abnormal and may be due to low mineral intake or inadequate roughage in the diet. This can soon become a learned behavior and can be difficult to stop. Although off-putting, it is not necessarily a major problem for the farm but could increase the risk of transference of disease such as leptospirosis or TB.

Voice abnormalities

Change in duration, volume, pitch of ‘normal’ voice may be due to pain, fear, as a warning to herd-mates or predators.

Try to assess the cause but seek veterinary help if you are unsure.

Eating strange things (pica)

Pica involves persistent licking, chewing, eating wood/soil/plastic/feces and other things that they shouldn't. This is abnormal behavior and can be caused by many things including, boredom, parasites, obesity, mineral deficiency, undernutrition, low roughage diet and more.

Consult your veterinarian for advice.

Always consult your veterinary surgeon if you have concerns about cattle behavior.

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