When most people picture a cow, they usually conjure an image in their mind of the animal wearing a large bell around its neck.
While most cows in the United States typically do not wear bells, it is widespread in other parts of the world.
Cowbells are especially prominent in the mountainous regions of Switzerland, where they have been traditionally used for hundreds of years.
So, what is the purpose of cows wearing bells?
The most common reason cows wear bells is to prevent them from getting lost. Cowbells help a farmer keep track of their cows as they graze in areas where they are difficult to see, such as hills and mountains. A cowbell also lets others know the cow belongs to someone.
The bells are usually plain, but in certain regions, they are very ornate and usually include a design to show the ranch the cow belongs to.
Keep reading to learn more about cowbells and how they may change a cow’s behavior.
The History of Cowbells
According to archaeological evidence, cowbells were used as far back as 5,000 years ago in China.
The bells were originally made from pottery or wood, but these were eventually replaced with metal.
Switzerland is most widely known for its very large cowbells, which serve to help farmers track the herd and honor religious traditions.
The cowbells often feature religious symbols and are believed to ward off evil and purify the land as the cows travel.
The straps holding the bell also feature intricate embroidery and include important dates for the ranch’s family.
Young calves wear smaller bells, while the farmer’s prized cow wears the largest bell to symbolize pride.
Each spring, Swiss cows in the Alpine region will spend time grazing in the mountains.
Once summer is over, they are brought back to the valleys, where they will spend the winter.
In the valleys, they hold large festivals where the cows are paraded through the village to celebrate their return from the Alpine pastures.
Flower garlands from the region are placed around the cow’s horns and neck for decoration.
As many as 350,000 cows make the journey from the mountains each year.
Reasons for Cowbells
While it is mostly an outdated practice in the United States, farmers still use cowbells in other parts of the world for several reasons.
Tracking the Herd
A cow’s grazing pasture may spread over miles of land, making it difficult for farmers to track their herd strictly by sight.
Alpine herds spend their summer grazing on the slopes of steep mountains, and the rugged terrain increases the risk of cows getting lost.
Cowbells make it much easier for a farmer to find lost cows and rescue them from potential danger.
In the United States, cowbells are generally used for ornamental purposes.
Modern farmers use ear tags, GPS trackers, and other technologies to track cattle herds.
As we discussed in the previous section, many farmers in the Alpine region use cowbells to maintain traditions in their culture.
Several festivals are held in villages when the cows journey back from the mountains.
These festivals mark the end of summer, and the cows are celebrated with parades and flower adornments.
If a cow does get lost, the presence of a cowbell lets whoever finds them know the animal belongs to someone else.
There may even be markings on the bell to denote which ranch the cow belongs to, so it is easier to reunite it with the rest of the herd.
The collars attached to the cows are also sometimes embroidered with identifying information about the farmer and their family, although these elaborate collars are usually reserved for ceremonies.
To Ward Off Predators
Cowbells may also reduce the risk of a cow being attacked by predators, as the noise of the bell will scare them away.
The sound of a bell is foreign to common predators like coyotes, bobcats, and bears, and it is often enough to keep them from attacking a cow.
Do Cowbells Affect a Cow or Change Its Behavior?
There is a lot of debate about whether or not cowbells hurt the cows who wear them.
While some claim the cowbells are harmless and do not bother the cow, others say their usage is cruel to the animal.
There is no definitive way to know if the cows are bothered by wearing bells, but several studies prove physical injury and a change in behavior with consistent use.
The Effects on Rumination
Some cowbells are very large and weigh up to 5.5 pounds, and in Switzerland, bells weigh as much as 12 pounds, although these are mainly used for ceremonial purposes only.
The cows wearing these heavy bells have been shown to have decreased feeding time and chewing compared to cows who do not wear a bell at all.
Rumination is extremely important because it improves digestion and allows the cow to eat more feed, increasing the number of nutrients the animal can absorb.
A lack of nutrients will cause a cow to become lethargic, and in extreme situations, malnourishment may occur.
It is not known if the weight of the bell or the sound it makes is what causes this behavior.
Cows have very sensitive hearing, and the noise of a cowbell may be as loud as 113 decibels.
Constant exposure to sounds at such high noise levels may lead to severe hearing impairment or deafness in cows.
Clinical hearing tests showed a slower response to audible stimuli in cows with bells compared to those who did not wear them.
These tests were confirmed using a thorax belt to monitor heart rate variability and response time to sounds matching the amplitude of a cow’s hearing capacity.
Neck Chafing and Discomfort
In addition to the bell itself, if the neck strap is not properly fitted to the cow, it will cause chafing and discomfort.
If the chafing lead to blisters or open sores, the cow is at a higher risk of illness, infection, and external parasite infestation in the affected area.
If a cow suffers a severe hearing impairment or becomes deaf from routine bell exposure, there may be some changes to how the animal reacts to environmental noises.
The cow will likely not respond to verbal commands or frequently communicate with the herd.
When a cow is not ruminating enough to properly absorb nutrients, the animal will become lethargic and weak.
A cow suffering from sleep disturbances from a bell will also have lethargy and may often avoid movement as much as possible to keep the bell from ringing.
Do Other Animals Wear Bells?
While we usually associate cowbells with cows, other livestock like goats and sheep may also wear them.
These livestock animals are made to wear bells for the same reasons as cows.
However, with ear tags and modern technology, such as GPS trackers, the practice of livestock wearing bells is becoming outdated in many areas, including the United States.
Cats and other small predators are made to wear collars with bells to prevent them from hunting.
The noise from the bell lets a bird, rabbit, or other small animal know there is danger nearby and gives them enough warning to escape.
Cats allowed to hunt outside pose a great threat to bird populations and other wildlife.