Living in the country as I do, I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with cows. Mainly positive I hasten to add, but there is something that always unnerved me… have you ever noticed how a cow will look up, while chewing cud, and start staring at you?
When a cow stares at you, it’s like they become fixated with your appearance simply stand there, staring! It’s very disconcerting which is why so many people wonder why cows refuse to drop their gaze… here’s what it all means including whether you should look a cow in the eye.
Why do cows stare at you? Cows stare at you because they are constantly looking for food, but they need to be on high alert for predators too. Cows will also stare as a form of communication, searching for recognition, and because they want attention.
In simple terms, a cow will stare at you because it has evolved too. You shouldn’t be too worried about it unless you do a few things to unsettle the cow… I will talk about those below. Read on to find out more about this inquisitive farm creature.
What does it mean when cows stare at you?
A staring cow can make you feel uncomfortable and at times, you may be wondering if it’s preparing to charge you. While this is a distinct possibility especially if it’s a bull gazing deeply at you, there are other reasons for this behavior.
1. It’s evolutionary behavior
The docile creature you see grazing peacefully in a farm paddock is a highly domesticated version of aurochs. Before cows were kept in safe paddocks on a farm, they were wild, roaming animals always on the search for fresh pastures. The wild cow was known as aurochs or Bos primigenius, if you want its scientific name.
The wild cow was a prey animal who needed to roam the land in search for food (here’s what they can eat). They always had to be on the lookout for predators. If the wild cow felt threatened at any time, they would stand stock still, and stare at the threat, deciding whether it was dangerous or not.
The domesticated cow descends from the line of aurochs and it’s only natural for them to take on some of the traits of its wilder ancestor. Even though the cow of today faces very little threat, they instinctively take on the staring behavior of the wild aurochs.
Did You Know? Cows actually quite like rain. Here’s also some truth about them sitting down before rain comes.
2. The cow is naturally inquisitive so will stare
The cow is a naturally inquisitive animal, partially because they’re checking out for danger. But also because they’re curious about everything that happens in their physical environment.
Cows are social creatures so when another being steps into their immediate surrounds, they want to see what’s up before deciding whether to connect or not. They do this by staring at humans and other moving objects.
3. A cow stares for recognition
A cow will stand and stare at you for as long as it needs to until they’ve decided whether they know you or not. Cows get attached to their caretakers but they’ll always make double sure it’s their caretaker standing close to them and not a stranger they don’t know.
A cow will stare at you, trying to recognize your facial features as well as looking out for any movement that may be a threat to them.
4. The cow thinks it’s in danger so will stare at a threat
If the cow doesn’t recognize you as their caretaker, they may feel threatened. They’ll continue to stare at you until you move away, and they feel safe enough to continue grazing.
Cows are fully aware of their own personal space and don’t like it when an intruder steps into it. They’ll stare you down until you leave their space. If you don’t and they feel threatened, they’ll fight you.
5. Cows have good memories
Cows have very good memories so if you’re a regular visitor to their paddock, they’ll start to remember you. Every time they see you, they’ll stare at you as a form of recognition.
When a cow stares at someone they recognize, they’re acknowledging you as someone familiar. In this case, once they’ve accepted your presence, they’ll often drop their gaze and get on with grazing.
Handy Hint: If you own a cow and you notice affectionate behavior, you might enjoy this read which attempts to decipher all that cow body language.
6. A change of environment
Cows are emotional creatures. They just don’t know how to express themselves in ways we humans understand. Cows also experience fear and anxiety especially when their surroundings change.
If you take them into a completely new environment, cows will stare at you as a way of expressing their frustration and stress. By understanding their body language, you can interpret when cows are feeling out of sorts.
7. They want a treat or to be petted
Cows aren’t immune to the idea of getting a treat so once they’re familiar with you, they may use staring as a form of communication. Like most other domesticated animals such as the dog or cat, cows love attention.
How often have you caught your dog staring at you intensely because he or she wants a doggie biscuit or a game? Well, the same applies to cows. They’ll stare at you until you give them attention. This could either be a treat they enjoy nibbling or simply at scratch on the head.
Should you look a cow in the eye?
If you don’t own the cow, and it’s not used to you, I don’t recommend that you initiate eye contact, and look a cow in the eye (even if they are behind a fence that can be jumped). The cow or bull could perceive you looking them in the eye as a threat, which could result in a charge or trample.
It’s not unheard of for people to be killed by cows, as this report on the BBC explains. It is rare, but it can happen.
“Members of the public are rarely killed by cattle, according to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) data. It investigates these incidents along with those that involve farmers and farm-workers. Between 2015-16 and 2019-2020 the HSE investigated 142 incidents. Only 22 of them resulted in a death and the majority related to people who worked with cattle.”
How do you tell if a cow likes you?
A cow staring at you can be quite scary and it’s only normal to feel in danger. After all, the cow is a big animal that could easily trample you if they decide to get angry.
But, there are some signs you can look out for that’ll tell you a cow likes you:
- Licking you: If a cow starts licking you, you’re safe. Cows use their rough tongues to groom themselves and other herd members. This is part of their social behavior. When a cow starts to lick you, they’re essentially “grooming” you as a member of the herd.
- Following you: If a cow feels safe with you, they’ll start to follow you wherever you go.
- Talking to you: Just like a cat that would miaow for your attention or a dog who barks to communicate with you, a cow will moo when they like you.
- They let you pet them: When a cow lets you pet or cuddle them, they like you big time! They’ll let you scratch they ears, stroke their body, or let you snuggle up close when they’re resting.
- They want to play with you: When a cow likes you, they want to play with you. They’ll run up to you and start nudging you with their head, telling you they want a game.
Why do cows come towards you?
We know now that cows are inquisitive creatures. They’ll come towards you to find out who you are. But, how do you know if they’re being merely curious or if they’re threatening you? If a cow walks leisurely up to you, they’re being friendly and simply want to know who you are.
When a cow comes towards you out of curiosity and you continue to walk on, they’ll follow you. The faster you walk, they more they speed up to keep up with you. It’s important to not panic and run but rather walk briskly until you reach an exit point.
But, if a cow starts galloping towards you, consider the possibility you may be in danger. The cow has decided you’re a threat to you and they’re coming towards you as a way of sending you on your way, out of their personal space.
Once again, you mustn’t panic. Move in a calm manner and avoid flapping your arms and hands which may antagonize the cow more. Avoid eye contact while keeping your body facing the cow. Never turn your back on an aggressive cow.
Do cows recognize their owners?
Cows do recognize their owners because of their amazing memories. With such good memories, cows will not only recognize their caretakers, but they’ll also remember other visitors after a long period of time.
This farm animal is a highly intelligent creature. They’ll even recognize their own names and will come running when their owners call out for them!
In most cases, when a cow stares at you, it simply means they are interested in you and what you’re doing. But, you should always exercise a degree of caution.
Don’t approach cows in a quick and aggressive manner, and start to look them in the eye without them initiating the contact. It could result in scared cows reacting and possibly even hurting you.