Cattle are unique among livestock for their horns, which can differ significantly between males and females as well as across breeds. The presence or absence of horns in cattle is not sex-specific. Horns are an inherited trait; whether cows have horns is often one of the first questions asked by someone unfamiliar with cattle anatomy and natural behavior.
Horns are distinctive feature in cattle; they are shed and regrown naturally. Horns serve multiple purposes, including establishing hierarchy, self-defense, and even mate selection. Understanding the key differences in horns between male and female cattle provides insight into their evolution, domestication, and management.
Most cattle breeds have horns in both males and females. However certain breeds selectively breed for polled or hornless cattle. While horns play some role in cattle welfare, their presence can pose some risks in confinement. Dehorning is commonly practiced in cows for safety reasons.
Anatomy of Cow Horns
A cow’s horns are composed of living bone surrounded by keratin, the same material that makes up human fingernails. The bony core of the horn is an extension of the skull. This bone is covered in a sheath of keratin that grows throughout the cow’s life, similar to how human fingernails grow.
Horns occur naturally in both male and female cattle as they grow older, usually starting to develop around 6-12 months of age. The horns emerge as small bumps on the head and continue to grow larger over time, composed of bone surrounded by keratin.
The inner bone of the horn is hollow and has a blood supply running through it. The outer keratin sheath protects the living bone underneath. Horns grow upward and outward from the frontal bones of the cow’s skull. They are anchored to the skull and cannot be moved.
In cattle, both males (bulls) and females (cows) grow horns. The horns begin to grow soon after birth as tiny horn buds on the calf’s head. As the calf matures, the horns gradually elongate and grow larger each year. Mature cattle with horns have permanent horn cores that do not shed. The keratin sheath may wear down over time, requiring periodic removal and regrowth.
Do Female Cows Have Horns?
The presence of horns in female cow, depends primarily on the breed. Most female cows are born with horn buds that will develop into horns. These are routinely removed through a process called disbudding or dehorning by either burning a ring around it or using a caustic paste.
For the most part, whether a cow has horns comes down to their genetics. Beef cattle breeds like Brahman and Hereford are naturally horned breeds where both bulls and cows typically grow horns. Dairy breeds like Jersey and Guernsey cows also commonly have horns in both sexes.
On the other hand, some cattle breeds have a genetic tendency toward being polled, meaning they are born without horns. Examples include Angus, Holstein, Polled Hereford, most Shorthorn, Red Poll, Belgian Blue, and Brahman cattle. Even in these polled breeds, some individuals may develop scurs or deformed horn-like growths.
While horns are part of the natural anatomy for most female cows, they are sometimes removed early in life through . This is done for safety and management reasons, to reduce injuries from horned cattle in herds. So, while the natural genetic tendency in cows is to develop horns, many live without them due to human intervention.
Do Male Cows Have Horns?
The vast majority of bulls (intact adult male cows) have horns. Horns are present on bulls across all cattle breeds, though horn size, shape and orientation differs between breeds.
For bulls, horns are an important part of establishing dominance and defending territory. The presence of horns in bulls is linked to testosterone levels and is considered a secondary male sex characteristic.
Horns start developing on bull calves shortly after birth. At first, horn buds are small bumps under the skin which gradually enlarge and break through the skin as ring-shaped horn cores. The keratin horn sheath then starts growing around the bony core.
By one year of age, a bull’s horns are usually fully developed into their final size and shape. From then on, the horns continue growing in length through the life of the bull. With age, the horns also increase in diameter at the base as new layers of keratin are deposited.
Related: Care And Management Of Heifer Cows
Cows can naturally grow horns, regardless of their gender. Female cows (heifers and cows) grow horns naturally. The presence of horns ultimately depends on breed genetics and whether dehorning was performed at a young age. Some cattle breeds are polled, meaning they are genetically hornless. This includes Angus, Hereford and Holstein cows.