Do Cattle Understand Death?

Whether cattle understand death or not is an interesting concept, which Joe Epperly, Marketing Director of the North American Limousin Foundation, discusses in his recent blog, Ruminations from the road.
calendar icon 24 February 2012
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Mr Epperly believes that animals are lucky enough to live in the moment. They don’t worry if they are going to have enough food or water for tomorrow, if they are going to get sick, if their mortgage is due, if they are going to die.

Many who have worked with animals will know that they repeatedly put themselves into situations that will put them into harm’s way or do things that could cause their deaths, and they don't seem to understand the danger or this.

"I've seen cows nuzzle their calves to death, and continue butting them after they are dead, then forget them not two days later. It’s sad but it’s true. They just don’t seem to understand," Mr Epperly said.

This is not to say they do not have fears though, he said. The fear of pain, the fear of being alone and the fear of the unknown are the main fears that are seen in livestock.

Knowing these fears allows producers to handle cattle in certain ways, and, Mr Epperley said explains why cattle sometimes do illogical things that might hurt themselves or people.

When travelling recently, a consumer approached Mr Epperly, who wondered whether cattle could smell blood at an abattoir and whether this upset the cattle.

"I don’t think cattle would have any idea what blood smells like or if they do they would have no understanding that it comes from them. They might be afraid because it is an unknown smell. But cattle have consumed blood meal for decades and they don’t seem to be afraid of it. Processing plants are very clean and though cattle have a keener sense of smell then I do, I could not smell blood except on the kill floor where cattle are bled out," he said.

Mr Epperly said that animals in the pens do tend to vocalise more then what would be considered normal, but that is standard for cattle moved to a new place with new cattle around them.

New situations will likely upset animals, as they will generally be associated with bad memomories such as castration, weaning and sale barns.

Out of the abattoir cattle are curious animals. They would investigate a dead animal in their pen, as they would an empty barrel or a stationary person, said Mr Epperly.

But saying that cattle do have a appreciation of loss. A mother feeds and tends to her calf, and if it died she would likely spend some time with the calf. It is a similar situation when calves are weaned. Whether she understands the calf is gone or not is a difficult question, but the fact is she will move on, forget about the calf and return to a regular cycle, said Mr Epperly.

Mr Epperly concluded saying that as a producer, he hopes that everything the industry does keeps cattle comfortable, calm and safe, when cared for, when handled and when slaughtered.

February 2012
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