Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 10:53 EDT


Cattle (often called cows in contemporary usage) are domesticated ungulates (hoofed), a member of the subfamily Bovinae of the family Bovidae. They are raised as livestock for meat (called beef and veal), dairy products (milk), leather and as draught animals (pulling carts, plows and the like). In some countries, such as India, they are subject to religious ceremonies and respect. It is estimated that there are 1.4 billion head of cattle in the world today.

Cattle were originally identified by Carolus Linnaeus as three separate species. These were Bos taurus, the European cattle, including similar types from Africa and Asia; Bos indicus, the zebu; and the extinct Bos primigenius, the aurochs. The aurochs are ancestral to both zebu and European cattle. More recently these three have increasingly been grouped as one species, sometimes using the names Bos primigenius taurus, Bos primigenius indicus and Bos primigenius primigenius. Complicating the matter is the ability of cattle to interbreed with other closely related species. Hybrid individuals and even breeds exist, not only between European cattle and zebu but also with yaks, banteng, gaur, and bison, a cross-genera hybrid. For example, genetic testing of the Dwarf Lulu breed, the only humpless “Bos taurus-type” cattle in Nepal, found them to be a mix of European cattle, zebu and yak. Cattle cannot successfully be bred with water buffalo or African buffalo.


The word “cattle” did not originate as a name for bovine animals. It derives from the Latin caput, head, and thus originally meant “unit of livestock” or “one head”. The word is closely related to “chattel” (a unit of property) and to “capital” in the sense of property.


Cattle are ruminants, meaning that they have a digestive system that allows them to utilize otherwise indigestible foods by repeatedly regurgitating and re-chewing them as “cud.” The cud is then re-swallowed and further digested by specialized microorganisms that live in the rumen. These microbes are primarily responsible for breaking down cellulose and other carbohydrates into volatile fatty acids (VFAs) that cattle use as their primary metabolic fuel. The microbes that live inside of the rumen are also able to synthesize amino acids from non-protein nitrogenous sources such as urea and ammonia. These features allow cattle to thrive on grasses and other vegetation.

Cattle have one stomach, with four compartments. They are the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum, the rumen being the largest compartment. Cattle sometimes consume metal objects, which are deposited in the reticulum, the smallest compartment, and this is where hardware disease occurs. The reticulum is known as the “Honeycomb.” The omasum’s main function is to absorb water and nutrients from the digestible feed. The omasum is known as the “Many Plies.” The abomasum is most like the human stomach; this is why it is known as the “True Stomach.”

Uses of cattle

Cattle occupy a unique role in human history, domesticated since at least the early Neolithic. They are raised for meat (beef cattle), milk (dairy cattle), and hides. They are also used as draft animals and in certain sports. Some consider cattle the oldest form of wealth, and cattle raiding consequently one of the earliest forms of theft.

In Portugal, Spain and some Latin American countries, bulls are used in the sport of bullfighting while a similar sport, Jallikattu, is seen in South India; in many other countries this is illegal. Other sports such as bull riding are seen as part of a rodeo, especially in North America. Bull leaping, a central ritual in Bronze Age Minoan culture (see Bull (mythology)) still exists in southwestern France.

The outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) have limited some traditional uses of cattle for food, for example the eating of brains or spinal cords.


Oxen (plural of ox) are large and heavyset breeds of Bos Taurus cattle trained as draft animals. Often they are adult, castrated males. Usually an ox is over four years old due to the need for training and to allow it to grow to full size. Oxen are used for plowing, transport, hauling cargo, and grain grinding by trampling or by powering machines, irrigation by powering pumps, and wagon drawing. Oxen were commonly used to skid logs in forests, and sometimes still are, in low-impact select-cut logging. Oxen are most often used in teams of two, paired, for light work such as carting. In the past, teams might have been larger, with some teams exceeding twenty animals when used for logging.

Oxen can pull harder and longer than horses, particularly on obstinate or almost un-movable loads. This is one of the reasons that teams were dragging logs from forests long after horses had taken over most other draught uses in Europe and the New World. Though not as fast as horses, they are less prone to injury because they are more sure-footed and do not try to jerk the load.

An “ox” is not a unique breed of bovine, nor have any “blue” oxen lived outside the folk tales surrounding Paul Bunyan, the mythical American logger.

Many oxen are still in use worldwide, especially in developing countries. In the Third World oxen can lead lives of misery, as they are frequently malnourished. Oxen are driven with sticks and goads when they are weak from malnutrition. When there is insufficient food for humans, animal welfare has low priority.