How are cows slaughtered and do cows feel pain during slaughter?



All over the world, millions of cows are slaughtered every year under inhumane and distressing conditions. Cows raised for beef make up much of this number, but dairy cows who are no longer productive or are otherwise undesirable to the industry are also sent to be killed.


Cows are capable of feeling pain and fear. As a result, they suffer in many ways when they are sent to the slaughterhouse, including being forced to endure long hours of transportation, physical abuse, and painful slaughter methods.


How many cows are slaughtered each day?

Worldwide, the number of cows slaughtered annually has steadily increased since the 1960s, according to data from the United Nations. In 2018, more than 300 million cows were slaughtered globally. This amounts to approximately 822,000 cows being killed daily in meat industries around the world.


In Brazil, one of the world’s largest beef producers, cow slaughter has been increasing too. In the first quarter of 2022, slaughter numbers rose by 4.7 percent, resulting in over 6.9 million cows being killed over the three months. This equates to nearly 77,000 cows dying daily in slaughterhouses.


In Argentina, cow slaughter declined between 2020 and 2021 by about 1 million cows, but the country’s meat industry still killed nearly 13 million cows in 2021 — or over 35,500 cows per day.


How are cows slaughtered?

Most cows are not slaughtered in the same place they are raised, but instead face long and often harrowing journeys in crowded, sometimes poorly ventilated trucks and trains to reach the slaughterhouse. Transportation is physically debilitating, with some cows falling or collapsing during longer periods of transport.


Once cows reach the slaughterhouse, they face long waits in large pens prior to slaughter, often within earshot of other animals being killed. When it’s their turn, cows are driven into narrow corridors leading to the slaughter area. Their first stop is the stunning pen, where they are stunned. This is intended to render them unconscious, usually by using a captive bolt gun that drives a piece of metal into their skulls and knocks them out.


After stunning, cows are hung by their legs on a pulley that moves them through the rest of the slaughter process. Their throats are cut and the major blood vessels in their neck are severed, and they die from blood loss — a method of killing called exsanguination. If stunning has not been performed correctly, or if the interval between stunning and bleeding is too long and the cow returns to consciousness, exsanguination may easily take 20 seconds to ensure unconsciousness, and up to a minute in many cases.


After cows have been killed, their bodies are moved along by the pulley system through a series of stations, where they are systematically dismembered. Workers will cut off the feet, tails, and heads of the cows, and they are skinned. Their abdomens are cut open to remove internal organs. Animals may still be alive during this process if stunning and exsanguination have been performed badly, and can experience the pain of dismemberment and skinning.


Finally, after cows have been dismembered their body parts are washed and sent for further processing, to eventually end up in grocery stores or on restaurant menus.


Cruel transportation

Transportation of cows to slaughter facilities is an area of significant welfare concern. Cows may be transported several times during their lifetime, from farms to feedlots, to markets, and ultimately to slaughterhouses. Each of these events causes significant stress and upheaval for the animals.


Cows can be transported in adverse weather conditions, including extremes of heat, cold, and humidity that can negatively affect their health and wellbeing. Cows are prone to heat stress, and being transported in crowded trucks can exacerbate this. They can suffer heat stroke and related heat illnesses.


Cows are often transported without provision of water and food, and can become dehydrated and physically depleted of energy as a result.


Rough handling during loading and transportation causes bruising and injuries, and there is no support or padding on trucks that might allow cows to rest or offer them any physical protection. Cows may end up being thrown around the truck or knocked down, especially if the driver is not being careful to minimize motion during transport. A study of bruising in cattle intended for meat in Mexico identified pre-slaughter handling methods as a possible risk factor for injuries causing bruising.


Cows are also subjected to loud sounds and vibrations that may be distressing to them. The stressors of transportation also affect cows physiologically, as demonstrated by studies in Bangladesh that linked transportation and the treatment of cattle during loading and unloading to a range of injuries, but also to immune system suppression and changes in hormone levels like cortisol.


Animal abuse

Cows are subjected to abuse at all stages of the slaughter process, from inhumane transport conditions to frequent physical abuse by poorly trained handlers and painful killing methods.


While they are waiting in the slaughter line, cows can hear, smell, and sometimes see other cows being killed. A 2017 review of scientific literature on the psychology of cows showed that not only do they experience fear and anxiety, but they also perceive the state of increased stress of other cows and become more fearful as a result


Stunning

Cows are most often stunned using captive bolts, which stun via two methods: either driving a metal bar at high speed through the skull into their brains (penetrative), or by impacting their skull with a mushroom-shaped metal bar (nonpenetrative). Both methods can render a cow unconscious, and the penetrative method, because it enters the brain, may also kill in some cases.


However, the effectiveness of captive bolt stunning is highly dependent on the accuracy of placement of the gun on the cow’s head, and ideally the cow should be restrained. In the distressing environment of the slaughterhouse, stunning may not be conducted properly on a moving and frightened animal, resulting in incomplete stunning.


When this happens, cows are either bled out while fully awake in the next step of slaughter, or they are repeatedly stunned until they are unconscious. This causes intense pain as the cow is subjected to repeated blows to the head. In one European Union study, 12.5% of cows in the study population were stunned inadequately prior to slaughter, necessitating repeat stunning in many of the cases. Calves and bulls were most likely to be inadequately stunned.


Slaughtering

Most cows are slaughtered using the method of exsanguination after stunning. Even if they are rendered unconscious, if the time between stunning and exsanguination is too long, cows can regain consciousness. If this occurs, they experience the pain of having their throats cut and fatally bleeding while fully conscious. They may also be conscious during skinning and dismemberment, depending on how long it takes for them to lose consciousness and die from blood loss.


Hanging

An average cow going to slaughter weighs around 636 kilograms (1,400 pounds), although this number may vary based on breed and country. Because of their heavy body weight, hanging them from their legs to be slaughtered can cause intense pain and injury to their bones, ligaments, and muscles.


Hanging also places pressure on organs and tissues as the weight shifts toward the head of the cow. This may in some instances prolong the time to brain death. One seminal study in the 1990s showed that the carotid arteries were blocked in some cows hanging upside down and may have contributed to longer times before death.


How are cows slaughtered “humanely?”

There is no way to slaughter cows humanely. Cows feel deep and complex emotions, including fear and anxiety, and want to continue living. The purpose of slaughterhouses — to kill as many animals as possible in as little time as possible to maximize profits — is inherently in opposition to animal welfare.


So-called humane safeguards to prevent pain and suffering, like stunning prior to slaughter, frequently fail and result in distress and agony for the animal. Slaughterhouse workers are often overworked and under pressure to keep the slaughter line moving no matter what, resulting in abuse as animals are poorly handled.


Ultimately, slaughterhouses view animals as products, not living, feeling animals with their own desires and needs. There is no way that animals can be commodified and killed and still be treated humanely, because this is a fundamental violation of their own self-determination and will to live.

Do cows feel pain when they’re slaughtered?

The process of slaughter causes physical pain to cows. Physical beatings by workers, as well as trauma and injury from equipment in the pre-slaughter stages of transportation cause bruising, bleeding, lacerations, and other traumas that are painful. A study of water buffaloes being transported revealed 244 incidences of contusions and concussions, ranging from small to deep and large bruises, in a study population of 100 animals.


Other studies have revealed animals being hit by the door leading into the stunning box, and having their tails twisted, being beaten, or being electrically shocked to get them to move forward. They may even receive electrical shocks to the face. Cows may struggle in the stunning box, injuring themselves and increasing the likelihood that they will have to be stunned multiple times — which means repeated painful blows to the face and head.


While proper stunning should render a cow unconscious during exsanguination, this process often goes wrong. Cutting the neck of a conscious cow activates pain receptors that transmit pain signals to the brain, resulting in the cow feeling pain. In addition, panic and fear experienced while bleeding out can exacerbate the cow’s suffering. Cows who are conscious during exsanguination have higher levels of stress hormones. In one study comparing stunned slaughter with kosher slaughter of cows, the animals who were killed without stunning had stress hormone levels that were 50% higher.


Some researchers have postulated that the abuse leading up to slaughter actually makes the entire process more painful, due to a phenomenon called sensitization. Sensitization results when repeated painful stimuli cause subsequent exaggerated pain responses to additional stimuli. In other words, all the pain that a cow is subjected to leading up to slaughter has the cumulative effect of making the pain of slaughter more intense, because the nervous system is already highly stimulated.


There is no doubt that cows feel pain during the slaughter process. Even if they are rendered unconscious during the actual killing, in every step leading up to slaughter they are subjected to situations that cause them pain.


How old are cows when slaughtered?

Cows raised for beef are slaughtered at around 18 months old, although they have a natural lifespan of 15-20 years. Cows used in the dairy industry are generally sent to slaughter when their productivity wanes, at around four years old. Male calves born into the dairy industry are often raised for veal, and they are slaughtered at around 1-24 weeks old.


What is the main purpose of slaughtering animals?

Cows are slaughtered so they can be sold as meat for people to consume. The meat industries profit from cow slaughter by selling their products to restaurants and grocery stores. Other products from slaughter are used in many food products, like gelatin, which is used in soups, broths, and candies.


Conclusion

Cows suffer before and during the slaughter process. Millions of cows are inhumanely handled and killed every year to feed consumer demand for meat, but they don’t have to be. Choosing plant-based diets instead of meat can help to decrease the demand for cow slaughter, and comes with additional environmental and health benefits as well.