Have you ever stopped to watch your cows hanging out on your pasture? Does it ever look like they are gazing serenely towards the horizon? Maybe they are watching something very intently, altogether.
You ever think that maybe they see the world the way we do, and even think about some of the things we think about? I know I do, and pondering this question actually got me thinking about cows’ eyesight. So, are cows and bulls color blind?
Yes, cows and bulls are colorblind, specifically they are unable to see red or green shades and tones. Cattle perceive these colors as different shades of gray or black.
Well, you can color me surprised I guess. I never stopped to consider that cows might actually be color blind, especially because of the old proverb about bulls seeing red.
It makes me wonder what else I believe about cows just isn’t true. We will get to that and do time, but for now we’re going to explore the answer to this question and several others in this article.
Do Cows Really See in Color?
Yes, or rather they can see versions of colors that don’t have any red or green hues in them.
Cows aren’t totally color blind, as they only lack the ability to see green and red, the equivalent of protanopia and deuteranopia in humans.
Specifically, any highly saturated red or green will appear as some variation of gray or black to a cow or bull, and other colors that are close to red or green will appear odd or just muted.
What Colors Do Cows See?
Cows can still detect blues, yellows, some orange and purple tones, and shades of black and gray.
Colors that are closer to red and green on the color spectrum will appear faded or muted to cows, based on what we know about the science of eyesight.
Why Can’t Cows See Red and Green?
This is due to the biology and mechanics of their eyes. Cows have two types of color receptors in their eyes called cones.
Humans have three types of cones, which allow us to see a broad range of colors. However, cows only have two types of cones, which means they are missing the cone responsible for distinguishing between red and green light.
This means that cows see the world mostly in shades of gray, black, yellow and blue. When we think back to my original question of whether or not cows see the world as we do, we now know they do not.
When cows look at that lush green pasture, they do not see the same bright green color that humans do. Instead, the grass likely appears a dull bluish color.
This isn’t just an interesting tidbit to help us empathize with our animals: this does, in fact, affect how cows interact with the world and the things in it, as we will learn later.
Why Does the Color Red Enrage Bulls?
Contrary to popular belief, bulls aren’t actually enraged by the color red. Since we just learned they are colorblind to red, what gives?
Why do matadors wave their bright red capes around in the bullring, and why do have the old proverbs and aphorisms about not showing red to bulls?
Well, it’s not the color that drives the bull into a killing frenzy, but rather the movement of the cape itself.
Bulls are not docile, happy cows… Bulls are sexually intact, testosterone overdosed, and highly aggressive males.
Between that and the treatment a bull goes through prior to a bullfight, they are already on a hair trigger, color be damned.
But they are nonetheless stimulated by the waving motion of the cape, regardless of its color. Maybe they think it is a predator or a challenge.
Maybe they just equate “movement” with “threat.” Hard to say. The bright red color of the cape only serves to conceal any bloodstains that may occur during the fight.
But knowing this we also know something else: you won’t be safe if you climb into a bull’s pen wearing something other than red!
Remind yourself that it’s not the color that’s causing the bull to become hostile, but the movement or mere presence of the intruder.
How Do Cows Make Sense of the World without Color Vision?
That’s a good question! Since we know that bulls see a lot more gray and black than we do, how does this affect their perception? Well, it is definitely different, that’s for sure.
For instance, cows are highly likely to startle at any sudden, nearby movement, and they seem particularly alarmed by “dark” objects. Anything that reads as black to a cow, even a passing shadow, might alarm them.
Cows also have difficulty distinguishing objects that humans can easily identify. For instance, cows cannot likely differentiate between a plastic bag and an animal in the distance.
Do Cows Have Good Eyesight or Not?
Good in some ways, not good in others. A cow’s eyes are located on either side of its head, giving the animal a panoramic field of vision of nearly 360 degrees (300 to 300 degrees to be exact).
This allows cows to see predators or other potential threats from almost anywhere around them no matter which way their head is pointed. A good thing for a prey animal! They also have great low-light vision, so cows see well in the dark.
But cows have poor depth perception, and constantly bang into things when forced to react quickly. This is because cows have a smaller binocular vision range of only about 25 to 50 degrees directly in front of them.
This is the area in which their eyes overlap and provide depth perception, which is crucial for judging distances accurately.
Another significant difference between cow and human vision is visual acuity. Cows have poorer visual acuity than humans, meaning they’re unable to resolve fine details in the same way humans can.
This can create further difficulties when judging distances, and can make it challenging for cows to recognize individuals they encounter until they get close or get a visual cue.
But don’t be fooled: cows are able to recognize familiar faces, including yours, which suggests these bovines have some level of cognitive ability and memory.
If they seem standoffish even though they “know” you, it is likely because they cannot see you. Call to them, or come bearing treats and they will come running, trust me!
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.