Is Acting Like a Predator Low Stress Cattle Handling?

Temple Grandin, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Dept. of Animal Science
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO, 80523

Progressive ranchers and feedlot operators work hard to reduce stress on cattle during handling. They may wonder how mimicking the initial stalking movements of a predator can be a low stress way to gather cattle on large pastures. The methods are described in my article "Low Stress Methods for Moving Cattle on Pastures" that appears on my webpage at What many people do not realize is that common low stress cattle handling principles such as entering the flight zone to make an animal move and using the point of balance to control the animal's direction of movement are all based on instinctual behavior patterns that the animals use to escape from predators. Cattle are a prey species animal and over the eons they have evolved behavior patterns which enable them and all their wild cousins to protect themselves from predation. The predator avoidance behavior patterns are hard wired into the brain and they function like bits of computer software.

The early naturalists called these behavior patterns instincts and modern animal behavior specialists call them fixed action patterns. Some instinctual behavior patterns are very rigid and fixed and others can be modified by learning. The flehman or lip curl of a bull is an example of a fixed pattern which requires no learning. Other instinctual behavior which affect an animal's movements during handling can be modified by experience. Cattle have a tendency to turn and face a handler, but keep a safe distance. The tendency to turn and face a person is instinctual,but the size of the flight zone is greatly affected by experience. When the person enters their flight zone they will turn away.

My observations of both cattle movements and watching many nature shows indicate that both wild and domestic grazing animals have three basic instinctual behavior patterns or "software programs" which help them avoid predators. They are:

  1. . The flight zone and the tendency to face people and other perceived threats
  2. . The point of balance at the shoulder and its effect on movement direction
  3. . The tendency to bunch together when they are threatened.
Turning and facing a potential threat enables the animal to keep track of where the predator is. If you watch the nature shows you will see antelope following lions, but keeping a safe distance.

The point of balance behavior pattern aids a grazing animal in escaping from a predator that is chasing it. An impala chased by a lion will run in the opposite direction when a lion passes it shoulder. This maneuver helps the antelope to escape. This same principle is also used to quietly move cattle both on pastures and through chutes. The main difference is that the cattle are moved at a walk instead of at a run. The animal will move FORWARD when a handler inside its flight zone passes the shoulder going in the OPPOSITE direction of desired movement. This is much less stressful than using an electric prod to induce cattle to enter a squeeze chute.

The third behavior pattern which can be used by herders and handlers is the tendency of cattle to bunch together when there is a threat. Creating a very slight anxiety will induce the cattle to come out of the hills and bushes to join the herd. A handler using either the windshield wiper pattern shown in the previous article or straight zig zag pattern can induce cattle to quietly bunch. The handler must NEVER circle the cattle. The windshield wiper pattern MUST be only a slight arc. This is much lower stress than chasing cattle and acting like an attacking predator. By mimicking the initial stalk of a predator the cattle will come together.

Cattle living in bear country will graze in tighter bunches than cattle which live in areas that are free of bears or lions. The constant possibility of being eaten makes the cattle stay together.Even.though they are in a tighter group they can still graze.

To keep stress on the cattle at an absolute minimum inducing cattle to bunch must be done at a slow walk. The handler must also be careful to avoid tight bunching. The idea is to do only the initial stages of what the predator does and this will keep stress low.

It is likely that inducing cattle to bunch by "stalking" them on the edge of the collective flight zone is more stressful the first time the cattle experience it. Cattle which are handled quietly on a regular basis will learn that the handler is not going to apply sufficient pressure to cause them to panic. A person who works with his or her animals can train their cattle. They will learn that the handler will release pressure on the collective flight zone when they have moved in the desired direction. This will further reduce stress.

A handler acting like a quiet stalking predator who induces the cattle to bunch is much less stressful than chasing cattle like an attacking predator. All handler movements must be at a slow walk and great care must be taken to NEVER cause the cattle to run or start milling.

A good handler using low stress herding principles has to make movements which trigger the innate anti-predator "software" in the animal's brain. To keep stress very low only the first stages of the "program" are turned on. When a bunched group of cattle is moved to a new location they should all be headed in the same direction and walking quietly. They must NOT be bumping into each other or turning. If they start doing this, it is an indicator that the next step in the "program" is being turned on and the animals are getting ready for a predator attack. This will cause high stress.

Handler and herders who understand that their movements are triggering innate behavior "programs" that are in the animal's brain will find it easier to learn low stress handling and herding.

Click here to return to the Homepage for more information on animal behavior, welfare, and care.