Do Cows Feel Pain? What Could They Be Trying To Tell Us?

Cattle certainly do experience pain. This can occur during dehorning, lameness, parturition, and when sick or injured. Cows appear to have different tolerances to pain and can also feel grief.

Research has shown that all mammals have a sufficiently developed prefrontal cortex to experience pain. The pain that dairy cows experience can be challenging to quantify because, unlike humans, cows cannot tell you how they feel. Babies cannot express themselves either, but we accept that they feel pain.

Doctors use facial expressions, changes in behavior, or physiological indicators to evaluate pain levels in infants. Dairy farmers, veterinarians, and research teams use these techniques to assess painful experiences in cattle.

Do Cows Feel Pain Like Us?

Cattle will experience pain during dehorning, lameness, parturition, and when sick or injured.

Dairy cows, like humans, have different tolerances to pain. During parturition, for example, some cows are restless, shifting position constantly, while others are calm and spend much of the time lying down.

The pain levels of a wound are not easy to assess correctly. Disbudding (removing horns from a calf) or mastitis only produce minor injuries or lesions but can cause significant distress. Disbudded calves not provided with pain management repeatedly shake their heads and flick their ears to indicate pain.

With large herds, it is never easy to notice everything, especially as some wounds and traits are difficult to spot with the naked eye. However, clues and behavioral signals can help diagnose pain and distress if you know how to recognize them.

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Every castration method also causes short and long-term pain, with calves like standing alone away from the herd, inappetence, tail flicking, and lethargy. Physiological and behavioral pain responses also reduce daily weight gain in calves.

Signs That a Cow Is in Pain

1. Inflammation

Inflammation is a reasonably common symptom of a cow in distress. You should look for localized pain, heat, swollen areas, redness, and loss of function.

For example, an udder with mastitis shows heat, swelling, and redness, and the cow would exhibit a reduction in milk production. Mastitis pain is challenging to assess, although an excruciatingly painful type called Escherichia coli causes inflammation and high-stress levels.

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis reduces the intensity of stress responses. At the same time, the adrenal medulla system manufactures adrenaline during moments of chronic pain or stress and is responsible for flight-or-fight reactions. The adrenal glands, which sit just above your kidneys, produce cortisol, another stress response regulator.

Cortisol is an indicator of pain and stress. Elevated serum cortisol levels are present in calves castrated without local anesthesia, dairy cows suffering surgical stress, metritis, and endotoxin mastitis, and cows with inflamed hoof lesions or hypocalcemia (low blood-calcium levels).

Areas of inflammation can occur if an animal is stressed. Haptoglobin and serum amyloid A are common indicators of stress in dairy cows.

2. Behavioral Changes

Dairy cows are herd animals, so signs of pain or weakness, especially acute or long-term ones, may be difficult to detect unless you separate them from the group. Cattle are prey species animals and will hide injury or distress as a genetic throwback so as not to appear an easy victim to predators.

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Recognizing reactions to acute pain by a solitary cow requires prior knowledge or first-hand experiences of its behavior.

Indicators of pain include:

  • Shivering
  • Nasal discharge
  • Panicked look in eyes with dilated pupils (a response to higher levels of adrenalin) and the visibility of more eye white than usual
  • Vocalizing
  • Shying away when approached
  • Chewing or grinding teeth
  • Shifting of weight, including “stepping” and kicking
  • Abdominal straining
  • Strange head or ear angle

3. Facial Expressions

Common facial reactions involve the nose, lips, cheeks, ears, eyebrows, and eyelids.

In humans, an angry expression would feature a furrowed brow, narrowed eyes, flared nostrils, and pursed lips. A painful one would have a furrowed brow, pursed lips, partially closed eyes, and a scrunched nose.

Sick cows will partially close their eyes, puff out their cheeks, and have drooping nostrils and ears. However, their facial expressions are not developed enough to draw an accurate conclusion if an affliction is both painful and a disease.

How To Evaluate Pain in Cattle

The most reliable way of evaluating pain in any farm animal is by recognizing changes to standard behavior.

  1. Monitor cows for signs of pain before parturition, such as kicking, rubbing against walls, head-turning, restlessness with constant shifts between standing and lying, and self-grooming.
  2. Check calves for 48 hours after dehorning. Look for lethargy, prostration, and ear flicking.
  3. With lame cows, you should be alert for abnormal gaits, frequent weight shifting on legs, and increased periods of standing or lying. An early indication of lameness may be an arched-back posture.
  4. Mastitis indications include decreased milk production from the affected quarter, increased weight, and constant shifting or kicking.
  5. More general indicators of a sick or injured animal are a lack of appetite, a tendency to stand away from the herd, increased periods of standing or lying, and a fall in milk production.
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Train your staff to recognize the standard patterns of your cattle’s behavior and any deviations, plus take notes of any pain management used and whether it was effective.

Cattle can be prescribed pain relief if needed. Treatment with a systemic analgesic can significantly reduce the pain they feel.

How Does Slaughter Affect Cattle?

Slaughterhouses employ two stages: Stunning, when performed correctly, renders the animal unconscious and unable to feel pain. The law states, with a few exceptions, that animals must be stunned before “sticking” (neck cutting) can occur.

Making an incision in the neck of a conscious cow activates receptors that transmit severe pain to the brain. Panic and fear while bleeding out can also worsen the cow’s suffering.

Operators must take care to avoid all undue stress on the way to the slaughterhouse as the pain of slaughter can be more intense if the cow’s nervous system is already highly stimulated.


Adam has always had a fascination with farmyard animals, no doubt sparked by the farm in Devon he used to visit every summer when he was a young pup. He became close friends with the farmer’s children, two of which were about his age, and they allowed him to help out with cattle milking, herding and tagging. Being a fondly magical experience, he recently jumped at the opportunity to help the team at Cow Care Taker.

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