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Dairy cattle - key welfare issues

Selective breeding

Single adult cow feeding in field © Andrew Forsyth/RSPCA Photolibrary

Selective breeding traditionally focussed on increasing the amount of milk cows produce, which caused many welfare issues. However, health and welfare traits are now deemed more important.


Is a painful condition that can lead to much suffering. Lameness can be caused by a number of factors such as poor nutrition, breeding and housing.


Mastitis is an inflammation of the udder usually caused by bacterial infection, for example from poor hygiene during milking or flies biting the teats. It can cause cows great discomfort, pain, severe illness and even death if not treated properly.


If cubicle housing is not well designed and managed it can be uncomfortable for cows to lie down in, which can lead to a number of welfare problems. Over the years, cows have got bigger, but in many cases housing systems have not grown to accommodate them.

Some herds are housed throughout the year. We believe cows need to have access to an outside area to let them exercise and carry out their natural behaviours.

Male dairy calves

One week old calf © RSPCA Photolibrary

Male dairy calves not used for beef or breeding are sometimes shot soon after birth, as they are not considered to have any economic value. This raises a difficult ethical issue because of their short lives. However, it shouldn’t be an animal welfare problem, providing the calves are handled carefully and killed humanely. We are also concerned if after birth they are given suitable care and colostrum (first milk).

The long distance live transport of veal calves

The long distance live transport of calves raises significant welfare concerns. Young calves can legally be transported for nine hours with a rest/feed break of one hour, before another nine hours or more of travel. The complexity of a sea crossing adds further problems.  

Veal crates were banned in Europe in 2006, but in many cases the relatively barren group housing systems commonly used on the continent do not satisfy the calves' welfare requirements, and would be illegal in the UK.

Find out how you can help improve the lives of dairy cattle.

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