How Do We Know if a Cow is Sick?

With all the talk about how antibiotics are used for beef cattle, it is important to note that if cattle become infected with a bacterial disease they might die if they are not treated with an antibiotic. But how to cattle ranchers know if a cow or calf is sick in the first place? Obviously we cannot just walk up and ask them, “How you feeling today?”

Questioning Cow

Even with staring at her intently, I couldn’t understand what she was trying to tell me.

Instead, we have to rely on other methods to determine the health status of our animals. This is complicated by the fact that cattle are prey animals, so they instinctively hide the fact they are sick. If they didn’t, wolves or other predators would have an easier time picking out which cow was the weakest to make her into lunch.

Speaking of lunch, cattle feed intake is actually a good indicator of cattle health. Sick cattle do not want to eat. With that in mind, cattle that don’t come up to eat when being fed a supplemental feed or have a concave flank like there isn’t much food in the belly are looked at more closely. Sometimes it means they aren’t hungry, but other times it’s because they are ill.

Cattle that are ill often will look a little “off”. To the untrained eye this may be hard to tell, but what they might do is hold their head or ears a bit lower. They might have a hunch in their back. Cattle can cough when they are sick and have snot coming from their noses, but this isn’t a reliable sign the are sick. Just like we do when the weather outside is cold or dusty, environmental conditions can cause a cough or a runny nose.


This is runny nose weather if I’ve ever seen it.

If cattle look like they might be sick, ranchers will sort them off from the herd and put them in a chute or headgate to restrain the animal for further evaluation. This includes taking the animal’s temperature, as well as potentially other measurements like listening with a stethoscope. If the animal has a fever and other signs, they are treated to help them combat the disease.

In addition to these time-honored methods of assessing cattle health, technology is helping us become better at finding sick cattle sooner. Progressive companies have developed ear tags that can track the animal’s temperature and movement, all while sending signals to a computer that looks at this data. If the measurements hit a threshold, the computer sends a signal to the cattle farmer that they need to take a closer look at that animal.

There are also other technologies that are coming out, but many of these, like the ear tags, are still quite new and will require some more work before they can be widely adopted. In the meantime, farmers and ranchers will continue to do our best to care for our animals so they stay healthy.