Behind the Numbers: Death by Cow

Which is deadlier: a cow or a triathlon?

From 2003 to 2007, the US Department of Labor recorded an average of 21.6 cattle-related deaths per year, for a total of 108. Compare that to an average of 5.1 deaths per year caused by triathlons, or 14 deaths in 2.75 years. Getting within kicking range of Bessie, it turns out, is far more dangerous than furiously trying to outrun, out pedal, and out paddle your competitors.

Triathlons, by the way, no matter what the length, are deadlier than marathons: 1.5 deaths per 100,000 participants versus only 0.8 deaths per 100,000 for marathons. Virtually all triathlon deaths occur in the swimming portion of the event and most of the deaths are among male competitors.

But back to cattle. If we take a longer view, 309 deaths in which cattle were listed as the primary cause were reported between 1992 and 2007. (Motor vehicle-related cattle deaths, such as hitting a cow with an ATV or truck, don’t count.) Dividing the total number of deaths by the 16 years of data yields the Labor Department’s 19.3 deaths per year.

In an article for the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Dr. Wayne Sanderson lists typical deaths in which cattle were the primary cause. Most involved men. Only one death involved a woman (see below), and one a child. The incidents vary, one in particular being…atypical. In March 2003, a 38-year-old man carrying a syringe of Micotil® 300 (a bovine antibiotic) was knocked down by a cow and accidentally self-injected. Micotil is highly toxic to humans, and there’s no known antidote. The cattleman died in a mere 1.5 hours.

Most typical cattle-related deaths, though, involved crushing, goring, stomping, kicking, or butting of some kind:

  • 65-year-old woman (Aug 2005, MO): attacked while removing a dead calf from a field, knocked down, stomped, and butted to death
  • 65-year-old man (Nov 2005, IA): crushed against barn door
  • 63-year-old man (Apr 2006, IA): butted, pinned, and stomped to death by a bull in a milking barn
  • 45-year-old man (Aug 2007, IA): attacked by bull while alone in a field

These cases exemplify several key characteristics of cattle-related deaths recorded in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska from 2003 to 2008.

10 of 21 deaths involved a bull. Bulls can be aggressive, and for that matter so can cows protecting their calves. In 7 of the attacks, the cattle or cow had previously been categorized as “aggressive,” and in 16 of the attacks the animal “was deemed to have purposefully struck the victim.” However, according to Sanderson, most domesticated cattle are calm and fairly unflappable: “There are millions of cattle in this country, and people deal with them every day, no problem.” The problem? Each cow is different, and has its own tipping point, or spooking-point. “Remember that cows have a personality too, and that,” because of their size, “even a docile cow can be unintentionally dangerous.”

More deaths occurred while tending or treating cattle in enclosed spaces (such as pens, chutes, and barns) than open ones. Many deaths cited in Sanderson’s article involve crushing against walls or doors, which he says is oftentimes accidental.

Of the 21 decedents, all but one were male, and a full two-thirds were over 60 years of age. According to Sanderson, “the average age of a farmer has risen, so that the median age is about 56-57,” farms being typically family enterprises, and difficult to break into by younger newcomers. With older farmers, hearing loss and arthritis/rheumatism has been proven to contribute to animal-related injuries.

So the odds of a human being killed by a cow are increased mainly by being a farmer, male, and over 60. That’s still nothing compared to a cow’s odds of being killed by a human.

Leave a Comment