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How Does Stress Spread Through Your Herd? It’s the PEE!

By   /  August 29, 2016  /  7 Comments

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CowPeesIf you have a male dog or cat, you know that, at least from their perspective, pee is a great way of marking their territory. Plenty of animals use pee to communicate with enemies. But “STAY AWAY” is not the only message pee can send. As researchers have discovered, it can also say “Watch out! Something bad is happening here!”

I discovered this when I was looking for animal behavior information that would help me understand why some groups of cattle learned to eat weeds more quickly and easily than others. I’d noticed that the slow learners were typically more nervous, so I was strolling the stacks at Colorado State University’s library looking for books that might have information to put these things together.

In one, I found an article by Alain Boissy, Claudia Terlouw, and Pierre Le Neindre “Presence of Cues from Stressed Conspecifics Increases Reactivity to Aversive Events in Cattle: Evidence for the Existence of Alarm Substances.” (Right!) Translated into English: “There’s something in the pee of stressed cows that makes others in the herd nervous too.”

The researchers saw that when calm heifers were offered food to eat, they ate it.  But when they added a stressed heifer to the group things changed.  When Nervous Nelly entered the pen and then peed, the rest  of the animals in the pen were much slower to try the food that was offered to them.  Nervous Nelly didn’t eat at all.  “Is there something in the urine that causes this response?” wondered the researchers.

On to step two then.  The researchers collected urine from both stressed and non-stressed heifers.  They sprayed this urine on pads under feed tubs. They found that the animals took much longer to try the feed in the tubs scented with urine from stressed animals.  In another experiment, they also found that heifers were slower to explore an unfamiliar object in their pen when it was sprayed with urine from stressed animals.

If you are imagining this whole process in your head, it looks pretty silly. What I imagine is researchers chasing a heifer to increase her stress, then rushing around to catch her urine, loading it in spray bottles and then spritzing it around to see the results.  But the results help us think about the ways we manage our animals.  Here’s how I suggest using this information:

1.  Got an animal that is always nervous? Get rid of her.  She’s riling up your calm gals and reducing their food intake just by sharing her fear every time she pees.

2. Are you introducing new members to your herd?  They’re likely stressed just from the move, so before you put everyone together in the same pen, give the newbies some time to acclimate to their new surroundings.

3. If I’m training cows to eat weeds, I want to be sure that I don’t do things that will cause stress that will then be communicated from animal to animal as they stand around the tubs, potentially peeing.  So I stay calm and quiet, I make it a fun experience every time they show up at the tubs, and I never chase them or herd them to the tubs.

Have you got other ways you might use this information?  Do share!

This was drawn from an earlier On Pasture article








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About the author

Publisher, Editor and Author

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.


  1. John Joyer says:

    Enjoyed the article.

    Maybe we should look at nervous nelly from another angle. Could she be an asset to the producers who have herds where wolf packs are moving into?

    This also makes me wonder if the stress pee would cause the animals to graze closer together for protection under those conditions.

  2. Paul had a lot of great information there! We’d just suggest a couple of things. When new animals arrive or you move animals to a new place, we ALWAYS drive them (yes, get behind and move them forward away from you!) properly (properly is very important!). It’s really hard to say WHY this works, but Bud Williams found that it took care of a wide variety of problems people have with their livestock. Who knows what happened to the Nervous Nelly in her previous world or even her previous pasture. It’s YOUR job (as the handler) to remove that pressure, assure her life here is going to be great, and look, here’s some yummy feed for you. You do this by properly driving them. It’s amazing how driving animals gets their minds “right” and puts them on the proper production road.

    The group Kathy wrote about just above (“a couple of wild ones that just never calmed”) needed more active driving to settle them. Just “stress free fun” can’t remove the mental problems some animals have. It would seem to us that just being “nice” to the animals, providing feed, water, being calm around them, should be enough, but it’s not for some. They need the proper exercise of their minds and their bodies which actively driving them provides.

    Tina and Richard
    Hand ‘n Hand Livestock Solutions

  3. Chip Hines says:

    Some cows are more than nervous nellies. They have a genetic disposition that should be eliminated.

    • Paul Nehring says:

      Maybe so. For instance, I would never use a bull with a poor disposition or keep one around for that matter. However, a cow that gives a good calf every year, maybe not. Bud emphasized that you can get these “wild” cows to settle down by working them properly.

    • DeAnn Ancell says:

      I just survived a pen of heifers that were awful. I drove them, I walked through them, I rode by them in my Gator. As soon as they saw anything, they ran to the back of their pen and piled up. They left their feed to run away. In close contact, they couldn’t decided whether to run or attack. There was no gain on these heifers and I’ve never been so glad to see a group leave. One good thing about them was they loaded like crazy on the truck. The real bad thing was, these were my home raised heifers. The bull was used only one breeding season for which I am very thankful.

  4. Paul Nehring says:

    Interesting article, and something that I’ve often wondered about, since cattle will often seem to instinctively smell something is wrong and balk at entering a chute or a trailer.

    I also agree that we should be mindful of the stress levels of our livestock, not just as a whole, but as individuals, who will influence the whole.

    That said, Bud Williams suggested that you can, with proper handling, which includes your attitude and mindset, remove stress from cattle. So, maybe you don’t have to remove the stressed out cow, just help it relax and calm down. You do that by properly working them for a short period of time…take them for a walk. As you are doing so, enjoy it, like you are out for a Sunday afternoon stroll, and have the mindset that this is a great place for your cattle to be. If you learn to enjoy your cattle, they pick up on that. If you are nervous, stressed, worried, angry, etc, around your cattle, they pick up on that too.

    My concern with your suggestion to remove nervous cattle, is that will make Nervous Nelly cattle owners even more nervous, and they will be out looking for nervous cattle to remove from their herds, which will make their cattle even more nervous. They may then unnecessarily remove decent cattle from their herd. As Bud used to say, you can make your cattle sick just by going and out and looking for sick cattle. I’m sure the same thing applies to stressed cattle, as well.

    I’m sure that Whit Hibbard or Tina Williams/Richard McConnell can further elaborate on this for you.

    • Kathy Voth says:

      Good point, Paul! I guess I was just thinking of this one herd that I worked with when I wrote that. There were a couple of wild ones in the group that just never calmed, no matter how much stress free fun I was having with everyone else. Those are the ones to be removed. But you’re absolutely right about our behavior being key to preventing stress.

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