Working Safely with Farm Animals

Prevention is essential to farm safety. Whether you operate equipment or work with animals, taking a few precautions and observing safety rules can save time, prevent injury, and even save your life. Removing hazards is one means of creating a safe workplace; knowing the correct way to work with animals and following good safety practices when doing so is another. According to safety experts, three-fourths of animal accidents involve cattle or horses although sheep and swine also are involved in many accidents. Injuries result from accidents involving kicks, an animal pushing or shoving a person, or an animal stumbling, and subsequently falling, or stepping on the worker.

General Considerations

You should observe animals to determine aggressiveness or signs of fear. If an animal’s ears are raised or pinned, if the tail or hair on the back is raised, if the animal bares its teeth, paws on the ground, and snorts, the animal is frightened or in distress and can be dangerous. When you work with confined cattle or horses, let them know where you are at all times, either by touching them or by talking to them.

Improperly maintained livestock facilities are the source of many accidents that do not relate directly to handling livestock. Tripping hazards — high doorsills, cluttered alleyways, and walking surfaces, for example — can cause painful injuries and considerable lost work time. In addition, poorly maintained corrals or pens, fencing, and working chutes can be factors in accidents. If not properly treated, splinters from deteriorating fencing can cause painful infections. A protruding piece of lumber, nail, or bolt can cause cuts or bruises. If cattle back or push a person into one of these protuberances, it can result in a back injury. You can construct or purchase livestock handling equipment that will reduce accidents when working livestock under confined conditions. A well-designed handling system can also speed up the cattle working operation, reduce time and labor requirements, and reduce the cost of operation. Properly designed buildings and equipment improve the efficiency of a livestock operation and ensure the safety of workers and animals.


Both tame and wild animals can be a source of human illness and parasite infestation. Cattle can transmit numerous to man. The following are some examples.

  • Brucellosis, or bangs disease, called undulant fever in man, afflicts cattle, goats, and swine. It can be transmitted from infected animals to humans through raw milk, contact with an open sore or wound, from an aborted fetus or afterbirth, or from slaughtered carcasses.
  • Leptospirosis is a disease that spreads to people through ponds and streams. Sick cattle infect the water with their urine, and people can catch leptospirosis by swimming in or drinking the polluted water. Once on a farm, the disease is difficult to eradicate.
  • People can catch Ringworm by touching a cow that has it. Ringworm produces small round circles around the eyes, ears, muzzle, and neck of the cow. It is difficult to treat in humans.


Although milk cows may look contented in the pasture, they are generally more nervous than other animals. They are easily startled, especially by strange noises and persons. When you approach a cow, always announce your presence by talking to it or touching it. Stay clear of the cow’s blind spot. Accidents involving dairy cattle usually occur because of their kicking, butting, trampling, or crushing a worker.

When you are working cattle, hazards include rope burns and falls from a horse. One common sense practice when working with cattle is to keep calm and maintain as peaceful a scene as possible. Cattle are especially nervous when strangers or small animals approach them.

Accidents with bulls often occur when a previously docile animal suddenly becomes unmanageable. When handling bulls, use a staff or other device and keep the bull in a strong pen that has emergency exits. The size and weight of cattle can be overwhelming. Remember, cattle have virtually 360 degree panoramic vision; they can see all around without turning their head. Cattle depend heavily on their vision, and fear affects their behavior. Livestock are sensitive to harsh contrasts in light and dark around loading chutes, scales, and work areas. They are also more sensitive to high-pitched loud noises than people are.


Most work-related, horse accidents occur when a rider falls from a horse or the horse throws the rider. This usually happens when a horse kicks, stumbles, or slips on a wet surface. Livestock recreation accidents usually involve the horse. Generally, the would-be rider is young and inexperienced and riding a horse too spirited for him or her to control.

When you ride, dress properly. Never wear loose or floppy garments that might catch on branches or scare the horse. Your footwear should have a deep heel. Make sure the saddle’s girth or cinch is tight enough to keep it from slipping. When you lead a horse, walk beside it, not in front of it. Never attach yourself to the horse by any tack or equipment because the horse might drag you if you fall off. When working around a horse’s legs, stand to the side of the legs to avoid kicks. When you load or unload a horse from a trailer or truck, always stand to one side of it. Never stand directly behind a horse.

Lead a horse from its left side. Always turn the horse to your right so you keep it on the inside. Never wrap the lead strap, the halter shank, or the reins around your hands, wrists, or body. Instead, use a long lead strap that you have folded “accordion” style in your left hand.


Boars and sows with young litters can be especially dangerous because of their biting or lashing tusks. Feeder hogs may be dangerous to individuals unable to withstand their pushing and shoving. You can guide hogs for sorting or moving by using a lightweight or solid panel. Place a basket over a hog’s head when you need to guide a hog backwards. The hog will try to back out of the basket.


Rams (weighing more than 300 pounds) and ewes (150 to 200 pounds) can cause painful injuries, primarily to people’s ankles, knees, and hips. A ewe will stamp her foot and snort to get attention. She may butt if she senses a threat to her newborn. Workers often handle a relatively large number of sheep in small pens. Because handlers are likely to consider sheep to be companion animals rather than cattle, they are not always as cautious around them as they should be, particularly in routine feeding and management chores.

Working Safely With and Around Farm or Ranch Animals

One in three injuries on a farm or ranch involves handling or contact with large animals. Animal movements are generally unpredictable, so you must learn to recognize the signs of fear, pain, and stress in the animals you handle. 

Approaching Animals Safely

The first step in working safely with large animals is using the proper approach. Most large animals can see at wide angles around them, but there is a blind spot directly behind their hindquarters. Any movement in this “blind spot” will make the animal uneasy and nervous. The safest approach is to “announce” your approach through a touch to their front or side. Most large animals will kick in an arch beginning toward the front and moving toward the back. Avoid this kicking region when approaching the animal.

Separate Cattle Safely

As one large cow can weigh up to 1500 lbs, it is not a good idea to try to manually separate cows using gates or boards. A frightened cow or horse will plow right over you. It is safer to use proper handling facilities made specially for separating large animals. Most animals will be more cooperative in moving through a chute with minimal distractions.

Leave Yourself an “Out”

When you are inside a handling facility or milking lane, always leave yourself a way to get out if it becomes necessary. Try to avoid entering a small area enclosed with large animals unless it is equipped with a man gate that you can get to easily.

Be Cautious Around Sick or Hurt Animals

When working with sick and hurt animals be sure to protect yourself from any animal-borne diseases such as undulant fever, tetanus, rabies, etc. Wear rubber gloves and other protective clothing for protection and practice good hygiene by washing your hands and face after handling animals.

Practice Good Housekeeping

Keeping your work area clean and free of debris will help provide a safe working environment. Check for and eliminate any sharp corners or protrusions in walkways. Check to ensure that latches and levers cannot fly open easily. Clean concrete ramps and floors regularly to prevent slips and trips. Keep pitchforks and other sharp tools stored properly out of walkways.

Maintain Even Lighting

Shadows mixed with light spots inside handling facilities will increase the animal’s fear and tension. Try to keep the lighting in these moving areas dispersed evenly.

Working Safely With Dairy Cattle

Dairy cattle are generally more nervous than other animals. Therefore, you should approach these animals gently to avoid startling them. Once you have moved dairy cattle into the milking stalls, give them a moment to adapt to the new environment before beginning your operation.

Working Safely With Swine

Though hogs are not normally aggressive animals, they can become dangerous animals if threatened. This is especially true of sows protecting their young. The best method for moving hogs is using gate and/or panels to guide the animals. Announce your approach to hogs as you do with other animals. Do not walk up to them quietly and surprise them.

  • Stressed hogs are less predictable and more likely to charge a worker. Calm workers are unlikely to stress the hogs. They must learn to use body movements that do not threaten the hogs. Hogs that are familiar with a worker, who enters each pen daily and always handles the animals considerately, are less likely to become stressed and more likely to cooperate.
  • Hogs are herd animals, and they like to follow each other.
  • A hog’s vision is nearly 360o. If a worker enters the “flight zone” around a hog from any direction, the animal will react and move unpredictably. To determine a hog’s “flight zone, slowly approach the animal from the front or side. When the hog moves away, you have entered its flight zone.
  • Hogs tend to move from dark to light but not into very bright areas.
  • Animals struggle when restrained.
  • Animals may charge the handler. Leg injury is a risk when a worker tries to stop a charging animal.
  • Boars are particularly unpredictable.
  • Weaning stresses sows and may make them more aggressive.
  • Hogs can become stressed during transit or if they are isolated without visual contact with other hogs.
  • Never approach hogs from directly behind.

Meadowbrook Insurance Group, Inc. and First Pioneer Insurance Agency, Inc. do not assume liability for the accuracy or completeness of the information contained within these safety resources. The resources are intended to be advisory and informational only. Use of the resources is intended for customers of First Pioneer Insurance and is subject to the terms of use with Meadowbrook Insurance.