Before finding out if cows can see color, you can check our article about the electric fence for cattle, which may interest you.
Cows are domestic animals that see differently from humans and other animals. Their pupils are horizontal and can’t see up or down but since their eyes are on the sides of their heads, the cows can get a broad picture. They have weak eye muscles and therefore they have difficulties in focusing on objects.
Facts about cattle
The word “cattle” comes from the Old French language and it means “property”. The female cattle are called cows and the male cattle are called bulls and they have been domesticated about 10 thousand years ago in present-day Turkey.
Cows spend a lot of time laying down during the daytime (about 10 hours) while they sleep for about 4 hours a day. They eat 100 pounds of feed every day. Cattle can smell very well, detecting smells from a far distance. They also have sensitive ears.
The vision of cattle is the main sense that provides half of the sensory information that is received from the surroundings.
How cows see the world
Their perception of the world is much more different than humans’ perception. They don’t see the objects very clearly because they can’t focus as quickly as we do. Cows take more time to process visual information.
Their vertical view is about 60 degrees while humans have a 140-degree vertical vision. To focus on objects on the ground, cattle need to lower their heads. They have blind spots which are right behind them which is the tail area. If you want to approach a cow that way, it will know you are there and its behavior may change suddenly.
The cow eye
The diameter of the cow eye is about 1.2 inches and the radius of the eyeball is half an inch. The iris is usually brown and the eyes are glowing if they are put in front of a light. The cone and rod cells that are found in the structure of the human eye’s retina exist in the anatomy of the cow’s eye too but they are differently distributed.
Which colors can’t they see?
Unlike humans, cows see the colors with a lower intensity and vibrancy than normal people. Cattle can only see a few colors and the ones that they see are faded. Cows are colorblind to red and green or other versions of these, meaning that instead of these colors they see a shade of black or grey.
The fact that bulls are getting angry when they see the red cape is just a myth because it is not the color that irritates them, but the movement of the cape when it is whipped by the matador. In addition, the bull charges in the same manner when seeing the other cape of the matador which is larger.
Several experiments were made on this matter. In one of them, there were three stationary flags of different colors (red, white and blue) that bulls charged equally, with no discrimination. The second experiment contained three dummies dressed in the same colors and the bull charged all of them and more than that, the red one was charged last.
During the third experiment, a person dressed in red stood in the ring with the bull while two cowboys which were not dressed in red moved around. The bull ran after the moving cowboys and left the person in red alone.
Which colors can they see?
Cattle distinguish long wavelength colors better. Colors such as orange are bright for them, but they don’t see the shorter wavelength colors like green very well.
They see blue and yellow but in a faded version because these animals have only two color receptors. They won’t see all the shades of these colors because they are very close to the green spectrum. Cows can also distinguish almost all colors from a grey background.
Behavior to contrasts
Cows are more sensitive to sharp contrasts than colors which makes them become alert when they see shadows. For example, a black fence near a white barn makes the cows shy away because of the contrast difference between the two objects. That is also the reason why cows avoid to drink water when the sun is reflected in it.
Cows may see a building’s shadow as a big hole in the ground. They tend to move from places with poor light to areas that are well lit. It is indicated to avoid sudden movements in order to avoid any dangerous situations.
You have to be careful when you are approaching these animals because they can be very unpredictable. For more safety, you can check the path for objects and shadows when moving your cow to prevent your animal from stopping or becoming irritated. The best condition for moving your cow is when the light is diffuse.
Can cows see in the dark?
Like other animals such as cats and dogs, cows can see better in the dark than humans because they have a light-reflecting surface called tapetum lucidum. This surface is an area located in the back of the eyeball, below the retina, corresponding to the level of the choroid.
This area allows the light that enters the eyeball to reflect within the eye, amplifying the low levels of light. This is a condition of adaptation that helps them see their food when there is no other source of light or to move in the dark.
How far can cows see?
Cows have a panoramic vision which means that they don’t need to move their heads to see in all directions, except what is behind them so their vision range is about 300 degrees. This helps them to be aware in case of predators that may threaten their lives.
Approaching a cow from behind is dangerous because their natural instinct is to kick toward the unexpected danger. The way you should approach a cow is at a slow pace from one side so it won’t spook and you can be more closely.
Cows have issues with depth perception. They are not able to distinguish how far or how close an object is from them. They can run into you, especially when they shy away from other objects because of the shadows.
The pinkeye (conjunctivitis) is a very common issue that is found in heifers that are about 4 months old. It manifests with many flows of tears and you can observe that the animal holds its eye partially closed.
The disease is spread by flies and it can be prevented by vaccines. This problem comes with its own complications: calves don’t eat normally and the immune system is compromised so the little animal may develop a secondary infection.
In bulls’ case, the eye problems may get overlooked until they become serious so it is indicated to call on a veterinarian to periodically check your animals. Another common problem encountered in cattle is the eye injury which is related to foreign bodies such as grain and hay.
Cows can also develop a hypersensitivity to sunlight which is called photosensitization. This is caused by different plants or drugs ingested by the cow.