Cows grazing in a field is familiar to us all, but is grass all cows eat, and can they eat meat? While cows are herbivores, which means they’re physiologically and anatomically adapted to eat plant material, they can eat meat. However, if a cow eats a large amount of meat, it risks its health and can also be infected by Mad Cow Disease.

Since cows are herbivores, their bodies are perfect for digesting plants, corn, and grains. They are also ruminant mammals, meaning their digestive system is specialized for fermenting plant-based food. Other ruminant mammals are giraffes, deer, antelopes, sheep, and goats. What happens if a cow eats meat?

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What Happens if Cows Eat Meat?

A small amount of meat won’t harm a cow, and some herbivores won’t hesitate to eat it if they get the chance. They can digest small portions, but if large amounts are given to cows consistently, the risk of contracting long-term diseases increases. These diseases can cause organ malfunction and growth abnormalities since cattle are biologically designed to eat mainly plant food.

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Mad Cow Disease

If a cow is frequently fed meat, bones, and blood, it develops BSE (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy), which is also known as Mad Cow Disease. It is a neurodegenerative disease that first developed in Great Britain in the 1960s. Farmers produced meat and bone meals from slaughterhouse waste to feed cattle and sheep when the price of soy, which was initially used to feed animals, rose.

Cow Biology

A cow’s biology is pretty interesting. Their stomachs have four chambers that evolved specifically so they could process tough foliage instead of meat. When a cow eats, the material goes into the stomach’s first chamber, which is called the rumen.

It is stored there until the cow is ready to chew. When that time occurs, the cow regurgitates the material. This process of grinding the substance down by chewing on it is called chewing cud.

The material then enters the second and third chambers, where it is digested slowly. Finally, the food is processed in the fourth chamber, where it is digested like our stomach would digest food.

Cows Don’t Have Top Teeth

A cow’s mouth is not designed to tear flesh, which is something carnivores have evolved to do with canine teeth. In fact, cows don’t have top teeth at all. Instead, there’s a hard, leathery pad called the “dental pad.” Cows grind hay, grass, and other foliage across this special pad and mix it with their saliva to break it down.

brown dutch belted cow in a meadow
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Why Might a Cow Eat Meat?

You might remember in school being taught that herbivores eat grass and carnivores eat meat. It’s a very simplistic description because there are exceptions to the rule.

Animals that graze on grass will sometimes eat worms and bugs by accident. If their regular food source has disappeared, they will find other things to eat to ensure they stay alive.

Although herbivores are not predators, they sometimes eat small, injured animals they find on the ground. They might even raid nests for baby birds or baby rabbits. This is also true for cows healing from an injury, nursing, or pregnant.

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While cows can indeed eat meat, it’s clear that they shouldn’t. Their bodies are not designed for hunting prey or digesting meat. Although cows are opportunistic and will eat meat to survive, their meat intake is very low.

Humans learned the hard way that feeding cows large quantities of meat is bad for them and can lead to life-threatening diseases.

See also: Can Dogs Eat Carne Asada? Vet Reviewed Facts & FAQ

Featured Image Credit: Andreas Lischka, Pixabay