The pain scale: 6 behavioral signs that a cow is in pain

The pain scale: 6 behavioral signs that a cow is in pain

Do you know how to recognize a cow in pain?

Research from Scandinavian scientists shows that cows in pain show specific behavioral symptoms.
(Read the full article here*)
They summarized this in a pain scale for dairy cows, which was then tested by comparing the results from behavioral exams to the results from clinical exams.

On the pain scale, six factors are important for scoring pain levels:

  1. Attention towards the surroundings
  2. Head position
  3. Ears position
  4. Facial expressions
  5. Response to approach
  6. Back position

In our CowSignals® training, we teach people to check at least three factors: the cows’ attention towards the surroundings, head position, and back position. These are very clear indicators. But some behavioral clues can be hard to spot. When observing your herd, you may not have time to check each individual cow for subtle clues like ear position and facial expression.

Luckily, you don’t have to be an expert in reading cow facial expressions to observe their health. Very often, the causes of the pain are much easier to detect the behavioral symptoms. If you spot a cow with wounds, contusions, damaged teat ends, or lameness symptoms, you can safely bet that she is in pain without checking every behavioral clue.
And recognizing pain is only the beginning (or the end, depending on how you look at it). A cow in pain very often means a health problem that could have been prevented. Many mastitis cases can be prevented by changing the milking routine, and many wounds would not have appeared in a barn with larger cubicles.
That is why we need to train as many people in the dairy industry as possible to look at both cows and barns in a structured way, to recognize the signals that will lead to health problems and to start preventing pain instead of curing it.

Still, this pain scale is a nice, detailed tool to keep in mind while assessing a herd. So next time you see a cow with a tense facial expression, remember to ask yourself the ‘why-question’ to find out what causes it, and start thinking about solutions.

How do you notice that a cow is in pain? And how do you prevent it? Share your best practices with our community by emailing us at

If you want to learn how to recognize all the cow signals, sign up for our live Master course or set up a FREE account to try the CowSignals® e-learning!

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Comments (4)

Frank O. Ödberg

Such pain scales can be a useful tool in order to evaluate large differences. I do object when presented as an objective scientific method. All studies rely on correlations between overt behaviours and physiological states that we humans deem to be more or less severe. Although common sense tells differences must exist, an important subjective factor remains. Even in humans, who can communicate feelings verbally, a more precise evaluation is difficult. Pain stimuli are not limited to thalamic structures but are treated by frontal cortical mechanisms. Personality plays a role. Sturdy people can complain less than "touch-me-not" ones besides actual physiological hyperalgesia.


Thanks for sharing your thougts, Frank. Valid point. Luckily, the authors recognize this as well; in paragraph 4 of the paper, they present a more nuanced view on the possible applications and the limitations of the method.

Peter Havrlant


Can you please provide the link to the paper? The hyperlink is not functional. I look forward to reading this, and it's insights. Frank's point above is valid that this is not an objective measurement but nonetheless a useful tool. Objective/quantitative measurement of pain is limited to research and laboratory analysis (e.g. functional magnetic resonance imaging at present in animals. Stress measurements which can be related pain or any other stressors can only be quantified through invasive monitoring (e.g. endocrine system changes in hormones, metabolites and immune system function). Can anyone give an example otherwise? Monitoring of rumen function, temperature, cow activity, milk yield etc. cannot be directly correlated to pain or stress levels.  The value of programs like CowSignals is that they provide practical information and upskilling. These programs can be put easily into practice by different dairy stakeholders with variable experience and theoretical training. These skills complement the objective analysis of farm and production data to improve overall dairy management.

Thanks for posting!


Peter Havrlant wrote:

Can you please provide the link to the paper? The hyperlink is not functional. I look forward to reading this, and it's insights.
Thanks for posting!

Hi Peter,
Thanks for your comment. The article is available on . Don't hesitate to let us know what you think!

Best wishes,
Tess Klifman
CowSignals® e-learning & social media

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