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Cows Tell Stories with their Facial Expressions

Maureen Hanson

June 9, 2021

A cow walks into a bar, and the bartender says, “Why the long face?”

Joking aside, cows do communicate how they are feeling with their facial expressions. While obvious behaviors like teeth grinding, vocalization, arched back, limping, and shivering are signs of cows in extreme discomfort, reading facial expressions can help managers detect and assist cows earlier in the pain and disease process.

In a paper in the Journal of Applied Animal Behavioral Science, Danish and Swedish researchers explore a vast array of cattle expressions of pain. Alltech Corporation also explored the topic in this helpful bulletin and video. Both sources said facial expressions are some of the earliest pain indicators, and include:

1. Eyes – Healthy cows should have bright, alert eyes that help them stay safe, navigate their surroundings, and locate feed. Dull, staring eyes; eye crusting; and sunken eyes with reduced whites showing all are indications of illness and/or pain.

2. Facial muscles -- Tension in the muscles above the eyes, along the side of the face, and/or above the nostrils may produce “furrow” lines that indicate pain.

3. Nose – A healthy, pain-free cow will allow you to get close to her nose. Cows that pull back, have dilated nostrils, and show increased tone and tension in the lips may be exhibiting pain.

4. Ears – Erect ears that are constantly moving and twitching signal that cows are feeling fine. Cows in pain may hold their ears consistently back or have droopy “lamb’s ears.” Ear position is an especially telling indicator of sick calves.

5. Head position – Carrying their heads at or below the withers could be a signal of cows in distress, while healthy cows will carry their heads above the withers.

Cows’ spontaneous changes to their facial expressions when stressed is considered an innate response, meaning it is natural and difficult to suppress.

The experts noted facial expression always should be observed when animals are undisturbed. They said reading the telltale signs of early pain can allow for more proactive interventions, which can impact animal well-being, milk production, and reproductive efficiency.

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