At first glance, cows and bison are similar in size, behavior, and even appearance, and it’s natural to wonder if the two have a shared history. Bison and cows both belong to the Bovidae family, along with other cloven-hoofed animals, like sheep and buffalo. They have long provided humans with meat, dairy, wool, and leather.

Bison are typically far larger than cows and are hairier, with larger curved horns and a characteristic hump that flat-backed cattle do not have. There are many varieties of cows, some of which have a similar appearance to bison, while others are easily told apart. There are key similarities between these two animals and a few important differences. In this article, we look at what these differences are. Let’s get started!

new hoof divider Visual Differences

Cow vs Bison side by side
Image Credit: Left (Cow) arnolgs, Pixabay ; Right (Bison) WikiImages, Pixabay

At a Glance

  • Origin: India, Turkey
  • Size: 800–4,000 pounds, 4–6 feet tall, depending on the breed
  • Lifespan: 18–20 years
  • Domesticated?: Roughly 10,500 years ago
  • Origin: North America
  • Size: 800–2,800 pounds, 4–6 feet tall
  • Lifespan: 10–20 years
  • Domesticated?: Never

new hoof divider Cow Overview

Cow standing in the grassy field
Image Credit: AnitaBozic, Pixabay

Cows are an integral part of human agriculture. They were domesticated over 10,000 years ago and are used for meat, leather, and dairy production. There are an estimated 1 billion cows worldwide, with that number growing every year, and over 250 recognized species around the world, 80 of which are readily available in the United States.

Interestingly, there is no singular word used to refer to both the males and females in general, although the word “cattle” is typically used to collectively describe female cows or male bulls. However, although cow generally refers to a female, we use the word colloquially to describe both male and female cattle.

Characteristics & Appearance

In general, cows are stocky, large animals depending on the breed, but cattle produced for beef are the largest and heaviest, sometimes reaching weights of up to 4,000 pounds. Smaller breeds are typically around the 1,000-pound mark. Cows can vary widely in appearance depending on the breed, with Holsteins possessing the classic characteristic black and white markings that we most identify cows with, but most cows are deep reddish-brown. Brahmans are unique among cows, with coats ranging from light grey to almost black.

Cows are ruminants, feeding primarily on grasses and other pastoral weeds and flowers. They have a four-chambered stomach full of bacteria that break down the grasses into cud, which is then regurgitated and chewed again. Rumen bacteria ferment the grass, which in turn, produces fatty acids, vitamins, and amino acids, the main energy and nutrient source that cows need.

Cows are highly social animals that prefer to be in herds and become highly stressed when separated. Cows that are kept in herds and treated well by their caregivers are not only much happier but also produce more milk.

Two Cow
Image Credit: PhotoMIX-Company, Pixabay


Cows are highly useful animals that can provide many benefits to humans, which is why it’s not surprising that they are so prolific around the world.

Cows provide us with milk and cream, which are packed with beneficial nutrients and are used in the production of other staples, like cheese, yogurt, and of course, ice cream! Cows are also used in meat production, and their hides are used for leather — a $400-billion market. While modern machinery has made cows less useful in agricultural work, they are still used in many parts of the world as draft animals to pull plows and other farm machinery.

Cow feces is also a valuable fertilizer in many parts of the world and is even used in natural building. Interestingly, their horns are used in the manufacture of musical instruments, especially in India. Their bones are also used in jewelry and serving ware, their hooves are used in the production of gelatin, and their fat is used in soap production.

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Bison Overview

Bison Standing
Image Credit: Capri23auto, Pixabay

The American Bison is the longest surviving terrestrial mammal in North America, although only two of the six original Bison species remain. Bison were once hunted almost to extinction, but there are now over 500,000 in North America. Bison have not been successfully domesticated and are still considered wild animals, even though there are a few small bison farms in the U.S.

Characteristics & Appearance

Bison are large animals, reaching up to 2,800 pounds in weight and standing up to 6 feet tall. They are powerful, muscular animals with shaggy coats, a beard under their chins, and a tuft of hair at the end of their tails. They have large, oversized heads with short black horns and a characteristic lump on their shoulders.

One of the primary reasons that bison have yet to be domesticated is their somewhat unpredictable behavior. While cows are generally docile animals, bison are known to act aggressively and attack without any warning or apparent reason, even though they appear docile and peaceful from afar. They are powerful and surprisingly fast animals that can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour, with massive heads and powerful horns that are highly effective and dangerous battering rams.

They live primarily on plains and prairies or semi-open grasslands, although some have been seen living in lightly wooded areas too. Bison live in massive herds, reaching over 2,000 individuals where the environment will allow, although most likely lived in much larger herds in the past.

Bison Closeup
Image Credit: Capri23auto, Pixabay


Since bison are not domesticated in any real way, you’ll need a license or permit to hunt a bison, with exceptions for Native Americans. The Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains used bison for many of the same uses we do with cattle today, mainly for food, hides, and bones and horns for tools.

Bison fat was used for cooking and soaps, the coat for clothing and blankets, and the tanned hides for saddles and hoof divider

What Are the Differences Between Cows & Bison?

Cows and bison are similar in many ways, and we use cows the same ways that bison were used by the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains long ago, namely for food, clothing, and hides. The exception is, of course, dairy. Since bison have never successfully been domesticated, cows are the primary suppliers of milk for the Western world.

When it comes to meat production, many people prefer bison meat over cattle, due to its low fat content and richness in protein. With industrial animal agriculture’s dubious meat production methods, many people also feel that bison meat is healthier overall, but it is much more difficult for most people to get.

Bison are generally far larger than cows, with the exception of some large cow breeds raised for beef, and they have shaggy, brown coats that cows do not have. Cows come in a variety of colors depending on the breed, from light grey to the characteristic black-and-white markings synonymous with cows, whereas bison are generally a dark brown color only. Bison also tend to have larger, thicker, curved horns and a characteristic hump at the base of their shoulders. That said, some bulls have large horns too, but these tend to be less tightly curved than a bison’s.

bison standing on the meadow
Image Credit: MOHANN, Pixabay

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Final Thoughts

The main difference between cows and bison is their size, but there are other key differences in appearance. Cows can vary widely in their coat color, whereas bison are generally all dark brown, with long, shaggy coats. Finally, cows were domesticated over 10,000 years ago and are docile and easy to care for animals, while bison are still considered wild animals, and you’ll generally need a permit to hunt them.

Featured Image Credit: (Cow) artellliii72, Pixabay (Bison) WikiImages, Pixabay