Wolf Attacks and Cattle Chutes… How are they the same? | Research Finds PTSD in Cattle
Cattle are extremely susceptible to bad memories, and the proof can be seen in emerging research from Oregon State University. The findings of this new study indicate signs of post-traumatic stress disorder in cattle who have witnessed wolf attacks.
“PTSD is a psychological disorder that develops in some people who have experience a shocking, frightening or dangerous event. This is the first study of its kind to reveal PTSD biomarkers in cattle” (Drovers).
Wolf attacks are a highly stressful situation for cattle for obvious reasons, but you may not be aware that the first experience in a cattle chute is a highly stressful experience for cattle as well. Cattle handling experts assert that the way you handle cattle early on has a direct impact – either positive or negative – on the way cattle will respond to handling for the rest of their lives.
“Experience rounds out why cattle act the way they do. They can quickly learn that a tractor and wagon mean feed. They can also learn that being chased somewhere usually leads to increased fear and distress … It is extremely important that we make cattle’s first experience with handling … as stress-free as possible so they are willing to do it again and even easier the next time.” (John Cothren).
Clearly, the first experience is very important for setting the tone for how cattle will be handled moving forward. A negative experience – with dogs barking, people yelling, or an incorrect use of pressure – can lead to a cow who is unwilling to move through your handling system and will make handling miserable. On the other hand, a positive first handling experience – with the proper use of pressure and adherence to low-stress handling principles – will encourage cattle to trust their handlers and keep them de-stressed, simplifying the cattle handling process.
Don’t be mistaken: it’s not only the cattle who are directly attacked by wolves who experience PTSD-like symptoms, but also those who are indirectly affected by the attack as witnesses:
“A 2014 study … show[ed] that cows that had been exposed to wolves showed more fearful behavior even when they had not been attacked” (Drovers).
Cattle are prey animals, and the fear the experience when they witness a situation which is highly stressful and dangerous has a lasting impact. The effects of witnessing a negative experience in a cattle chute can be much the same. If they witness a cow who is highly stressed while moving through a handling system – bucking, kicking, or chute shy – this negative experience can carry over to the way other cattle will respond to being handled as well.
Chute shyness is an issue many ranchers have experienced, specifically with cattle who have been worked through a self-catch head gate. All it takes is one negative experience in which they hit the head gate too hard and pull back, refusing to hit the gate again, and you can have difficulty working that cow for life!
Hear one rancher’s personal experience of switching from a Self-catch to Manual catch head gate, and how it de-stressed his cattle and his operation with “the beauty of the sliding head gate”!
The effects of stress on cattle are known to have an impact on cattle performance, weight gain, and even meat tenderness and flavor! This has been seen by cattle handling experts for years, and the scientific research to back it up is emerging:
“Multiple studies from Cooke and other researchers have established a link between cow stress and poor performance traits that can cost ranchers” (Drovers).
Keeping your cattle at low-stress levels can benefit your operation all around, not only by limiting cattle stress, but also increasing the by efficiency of your operation! Running your ranch is enough work, and the last thing you need is cattle who make that more difficult.