Cows are so big and so strong it seems like they can go anywhere they want. But this is only something you’d think at first glance.
When you realize that cows are incredibly heavy, you notice that they tend to be surprisingly careful with their movements.
They definitely aren’t the all-terrain machines that goats are, I can promise you that.
On the subject, there is a well-known notion that cows are afraid of, or completely unable to navigate, staircases. Is this true? Can cows go downstairs, and what are the risks for them?
Cows can go downstairs but they try to avoid doing so. Stairs are designed for human use and cows have poor footing and balance on them. A cow that loses its balance on stairs will likely suffer a devastating fall.
Four legs usually mean more stability in the animal kingdom, but not on staircases. Cows are so heavy and their bodies so long that staircases are extremely difficult for them to navigate, especially going down.
Nonetheless, they can, and have, done so in the past so it isn’t out of the question. Keep reading and I’ll tell you everything that you ever wanted to know about cows using stairs.
Why Can’t Cows Go Down Stairs?
It’s not so much that cows cannot go downstairs as they really, truly don’t want to and will avoid attempting a staircase if they have any other option.
This is because the biology and body structure of cows makes them particularly ill-suited to traverse them.
For starters, let’s look at staircases in general. Any staircase, no matter how shallow or how steep, is designed for humans to traverse.
We have excellent binocular vision and depth perception, and our upright, bipedal body plan keeps all of our weight directly over both of our feet. This means that stairs, generally speaking, are safe and easy for us to use.
It isn’t so for cows… Cows have four legs, yes, but they are quadrupeds with a horizontal body plan. This means that their weight is more or less distributed between their front and back legs.
This naturally makes stairs significantly more awkward for them to use. But I can already hear the question that some of you might have: cats and dogs use stairs, and they’re quadrupeds, so why can’t cows?
That brings us to the next major snag for cows, and it’s the fact that they aren’t a comparatively little dog or cat. Cows are huge, much taller and far, far heavier.
Furthermore, a cow’s vision is optimized to give them a good nearly 360° field of vision around them.
Their depth perception is generally very poor since their eyes are located on the sides of their head, and they have binocular vision and only a small slice dead ahead of them.
Depth perception is absolutely critical for navigating stairs safely, and doubly so when you weigh a ton or nearly two.
Stated simply, it is very, very easy for a cow to get mixed up and make a misstep that will result in a catastrophic fall or slip.
Cows know this instinctively, and if they don’t know for sure that they have certain footing, they generally avoid walking over any surface, stairs included.
What are the Risks of Cows Navigating Stairs?
Falling, of course. Any cow that slips or stumbles on stairs is highly likely to go out of control and fall.
Depending on the length and or height of the staircase, this could mean a nasty tumble and internal injuries or fractures. A serious fall could result in death, or complications that could lead to it.
Also, not for nothing, any people or objects that are nearby when a thousand pound-plus animal is navigating a staircase and falls are in grave danger of injury if they are in the way.
It doesn’t matter if you have half a ton of a stone coming at you or half a ton of beef on the hoof: the physics definitely don’t work out in the favor of anything that is beneath the cow when this accident occurs!
Can Cows Go Up Stairs?
Cows can go up a staircase, and no, they don’t like to as with descending they have a much easier time going up than down.
This is because a cow is not forced to lower its head at an unnatural angle to see the surface beneath it while advancing on the stairs.
This is also no reason why you should ever force your cow to go up any staircase for any reason if it is avoidable.
Just because it is easier for them than going down doesn’t mean it is safe or that the cow can do it without stress.
Can You Use Stairs for Cattle Containment?
No, it’s generally not a good idea. Some folks have latched on to the notion that, because cows will avoid staircases whenever they can, you can use stairs as a sort of passage to get into and out of areas containing cows freely without use of a gate or door, while still keeping the cows in.
This is a bad idea for a host of reasons. First, the cows themselves or individual cows might eventually work up the nerve to try the stairs, and then they will either get injured, or cross the staircase and then be free.
Second, there’s almost no set of circumstances where you are better off relying on staircases as entrances instead of doors or gates.
Can Cows Go Up or Down Ramps?
Yes. Cows can go up and down ramps and they generally have a much easier time navigating ramps than staircases. Ramps are smooth and far less likely to make a cow trip or stumble compared to a staircase.
That being said, cows struggle on any steep surface, even one that is as smooth and certain as a properly built ramp. Ideally, you’ll keep any ramp design for your cows to use with a grade of 20° or less.
Cows can navigate steeper grades, and reliably go up or down grades of 25°, but things get dicey as they get steeper, and accidents are more likely.
Can Cows Run Downhill?
Yes, so long as the hill is not too steep. Cows are surprisingly fast when they need to be, but assuming they are not panicked they generally only run when they have sure footing.
A cow that takes off running and then it suddenly encounters a slope is likely to slow down to navigate it safely, but if it doesn’t, and if the hill is too steep, a slip or fall is highly likely, often with disastrous consequences for the cow.
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.