As careful as they may be, veterinarians are not immune from injury or even death when working with livestock. Though no hard numbers are available for injuries to food-animal veterinarians, information is available about the hazards of producers working with livestock which serves as a reminder of the dangers that can occur to veterinarians.

Livestock was responsible for the highest percentage of injury claims among all occupations, according to a report at the 2008 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) National Occupational Research Agenda Symposium. Among dairy farms, 31.1% of injuries were caused by livestock. Livestock was responsible for 21.7 % and 27% of claims among cattle/livestock raisers and cattle dealers respectively (

The Cornell Agricultural Health and Safety Program says there are four common types of livestock animal-handling injuries:

  • Animal steps on handler
  • Animal slips and falls on handler
  • Animal pins or squeezes handler against a barrier
  • Animal kicks handler

On dairies, the most common injuries to milkers involved being kicked while performing a milking task such as attaching a milking unit, and being stepped on. Among cattle/livestock raisers, many injuries occurred while horseback, but other job tasks were also prone to cause injuries, such as branding, ear tagging, calf birthing, hoof trimming, vaccinating, pushing cattle while standing, loading cattle into a trailer and processing cattle.

Though these tasks were looked at specifically for farm workers, veterinarians are involved in many of those same tasks, and frequently more dangerous situations such as dealing with injured or frightened animals. Case reports online at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website describe farmers killed by aggressive bulls or workers crushed between a gate and an animal while loading or unloading cattle. How many times are veterinarians in similar situations?

“I think we often forget just how powerful these animals really are,” reminds dairy practitioner Angela Daniels, DVM, Circle H Animal Health, Dalhart, Texas. “Most of the time, these animals are docile and we let our guard down. Proper restraint is a key. A lot of injuries happen when we are trying to catch one behind the fence or bunching them up to preg check them that way.”

Communication with the animal is vital, Daniels adds. “It is so important to let them know where you are so they are not startled.” 

Watch animal behavior

Animals first become frightened, then try to escape. If they can’t escape, they fight. “If handlers are good at reading cattle, they do not push them into the fight zone,” says cattle handling expert Lynn Locatelli, DVM, Cattlexpressions, Wolf Creek, Mont. “If handling is inappropriate, handlers are aggressive or the situation is unique, handlers force animals into the ‘Twilight Zone’ where the animals are out of their minds, making them nearly impossible to work with. At this point, the handler’s safest option is escape.”

An animal will usually tell you when it’s nervous or potentially aggressive. Daniels suggests watching their ears, head and feet. “Animals tend to stand very rigid, with their ears perked and head high when they are scared,” she explains. “Aggressive animals will lower their head when they are zoning in. Animals in head locks that dance and scoot from side to side are resisting restraint. The person on the head may need to grasp the nose to distract the animal or if a second person is working behind, they may need to push the cow to one side to assist.”

Dee Griffin, DVM, MS, Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center, Clay Center, Neb., says when they are agitated, cattle will exhibit up-and-down or side-to-side head movements as if to gauge where the human is. “Cows seem to always act agitated and will glance around as if to be looking for a way to escape or to gauge other threats in the vicinity,” he says. “I think bulls will be more deliberate than cows??—??almost stalking you.”

Always pay attention to the animal’s head and body language, advises Locatelli. “If they turn to look at you??—??they are telling you something. It may be that you’re too close, you’re applying too much pressure, you’re in too far behind, they’re curious, they’re frightened, etc. It’s the responsibility of the handler to determine what the animal is saying. If the ears and eyes are perked up, something is going to happen. A good handler pays attention to the subtleties of bovine body language; this tells the handler where to be, what to do and when to do it.” 

Locatelli says it’s wise to pay attention to the animals and avoid creating charging aggression. However, when you encounter a bovine trying to charge, she says sometimes you can move your body to the left and to the right without going forward (rocking) and catch the animals’ attention and slow them down. “This will only work if they’re not completely out of their mind and if you’ve got a bit of distance between you and the charging animal,” she explains. “Occasionally, holding your ground does cause a charging animal to back off??—??but again, it depends on the animal’s state of mind.”

Horses usually kick directly toward the rear. Cattle are “round-house” punchers and can kick forward and out to the side. Cows also have a tendency to kick toward a side with pain. Calves can kick directly backward and can also have a quick “round-house” punch (see “Cattle Handling and Working Facilities”).

Plan escape routes

Griffin notes that the most common mistake when working with cattle is not keeping a safe way to get out of danger fast. “This fast exit has to be continually reevaluated moment to moment as you work around the cattle,” he says. “The biggest mistake is getting engrossed with what you’re doing and forgetting to stay aware of the cattle around you.”

Max Thornsberry, DVM, MS, Richland, Mo., knows how fast routine cattle work can turn dangerous. In January 2005, at a salebarn he followed a mean, 1,200-lb. cow into an 8-foot alley. “I knew she was a problem, but I thought with my superior cattle skills, I could step through a gate, she would go on by, and I would close the gate,” Thornsberry recalls. “This cow moved faster than any cow I have every encountered, and charged me, smashing my hand into a pipe gate, cutting off my index finger, the first phalanx of my thumb, and mashing the bone right out of my second finger.  I lost the index finger and have, as a consequence, an unusable second finger, and I am missing the first joint on my thumb. This was my left hand, the arm I use for palpating cows. I can still do surgery, but I had to train my right hand to palpate.” Thornsberry notes that if the cow had hit him square, he wouldn’t be here today.

Thornsberry says the accident was caused by two things. The first was improper handling equipment as the gate he was trying to open was rusted shut. “The second was complacency on my behalf, having worked cattle for 30 years. We are usually cautious around a bull, but I never gave a cow much thought. I do now.”

Daniels always plans an escape route before entering a pen on the dairy. “Generally, we have some clues before entering a situation that we are dealing with some aggression,” she says. “Put something between you and the animal??—??a free stall, a fence, a gate, another animal, etc.”

Avoid animal-handling injuries

Veterinarians are not always able to be there to train employees on livestock handling for their safety as well. Daniels believes training can help, and perhaps video-based training showing common mistakes and pointers in different situations for each management type would be effective.

Griffin suggests that veterinarians take regularly scheduled time to discuss safety with employees. “This is best done as a round table open discussion with employees,” he says. “Mentoring new employees by assigning them to long-tenured employees is a system that seems to me to be an outstanding safety training and injury prevention system as used at the U.S Meat Animal Research Center.” Griffin notes that this period for most new employees lasts for about six months.

Locatelli believes veterinary schools should also incorporate appropriate handling techniques into every procedure veterinary students perform on any animal. “This is an under-emphasized area of veterinary medicine and should be incorporated into all animal contact situations.”

Veterinarians should also keep these suggestions in mind for their own haul-in facilities:

  • Cattle handling facilities should be equipped with properly constructed animal loading structures to minimize hazards associated with animal transport.
  • Workers should avoid positioning themselves in areas of entrapment when working around large animals.
  • Cattle should be monitored for signs of unusual aggression. Dangerous animals should be promptly removed from farms to prevent worker injury.
  • Work areas should be designed or modified to eliminate potentially hazardous protrusions.

Everyone needs to pay attention to the subtleties of bovine body language, but Locatelli says veterinarians especially get in a hurry. “Producers who are calm with their cattle often stay calm and aren’t always impressed with the way a hurried veterinarian handles cattle,” she notes. “Producers who need to work more calmly with their cattle often get into an excited state when a hurried veterinarian works with them.”

If you are injured

There might come a time where you are injured at a farm and are unable to communicate. It’s a good idea in your cell phone to enter in the now commonly used “ICE” (in case of emergency) number, which many emergency responders are now trained to look for. In your cell phone address book, enter the name ICE and put an emergency number in. Daniels says this is important and easy to do. You can also have an emergency contact number posted in your truck in an easy to find spot such as on the dash or taped to your cell phone charger or two-way radio.

Make sure you carry a first aid kit in your truck, and be aware of where the first aid kits are on your clients’ operations.

As a result of his accident, Thornsberry recommends veterinarians also carry workman’s comp insurance. Unfortunately, he says, he’s still waiting on the insurance to pay off due to conflicts between the workman’s comp and the salebarn’s insurance. He encourages veterinarians to make sure they have insurance to try to eliminate the conflicts he’s experiencing. “At least I am alive, and I am not permanently disabled,” Thornsberry adds. “I can still do what I did before, only a little differently, and much more carefully.”