Animal Defense Mechanisms

Discover defense mechanisms your livestock and wildlife use to fend for themselves.

Moth

A moth’s camouflage is its first line of defense.

Photo by Maslowski Wildlife Productions

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Inside your barns and sheds, danger lurks. Rusty nails can catch a sleeve and scratch an arm. You can trip on loose boards, heavy things can fall on your head, a slick spot can send you to your rear, and those are just a few of the perilous things in the place your animals call home. But what about the animals themselves?

Let’s just say nobody goes to the barn without some sort of protection.

This is especially so in the wild. Spanish ribbed newts have the nifty ability to turn their bones into side-rows of poisonous spikes when they come across danger. When threatened, hagfish ooze a substance that mixes with water and becomes slime to disable an enemy. Northern fulmar chicks will vomit on an attacker. Bombardier beetles can shoot burning fluid from their behind when they feel threatened, and a species of Malaysian ants will explode themselves to protect their nest.

The good news is that you’ll likely never find hagfish, fulmar chicks, or Malaysian ants in your barn, and Spanish ribbed newts probably don’t reside in your shed. But the defense mechanisms of the animals you live with are just as interesting.

Let’s start at the top.

Horns

For many species of wild animals, horns or antlers evolved for either mating purposes (he who has the best rack wins) or for defense and warfare (and sometimes defense and warfare go hand-in-hand with mating). For domestic animals – prey creatures like sheep, goats, and some cattle – the defense and warfare seems to be the reigning theory of why evolution gave them bony protuberances covered with skin and keratinized cells sprouting from their head.

For a wild animal, those antlers can sure look purdy, but it comes at a cost of physical resources used to grow or regrow any horn shed or lost seasonally or in battle. If food or water is scarce, that could be a problem. Domestic, non-polled animals genetically predisposed to having horns don’t have these problems. In your barnyard, both male and female animals could have horns, and resources are usually plentiful for horn growing.

Some experts recommend dehorning of domestic animals for safety reasons. Horns can cause puncture wounds or even death, either by accident or on purpose, to herd mates or caretakers. They can (rarely) cause injury to the animal itself, getting hung up in brush, trees or fences. Conversely, some people recommend horns be left right where they are, and let the animal be as nature intended, particularly if the animal spends an appreciable amount of time in the fields without supervision. Horns can be artificially blunted, but some animals will instinctively sharpen them. Yikes!

Overall, it should be said that messing with a horned critter – especially one that’s feeling ornery – is really a silly idea. What’s that old saying, “mess with the bull, get the horns?!”

Teeth

Anyone who’s ever faced a strange dog in a strange place undoubtedly has a healthy respect for what’s before them: teeth, and lots of ‘em. Dogs, cats and other predators have evolved a good set of sharp chompers that they’ll instinctively use when threatened, harmed or just feel grumpy. They could, of course, run away when faced with an enemy – being fleet of foot is another defense mechanism – but that’ll go only so far.

A predator’s teeth are an exquisitely wonderful tool. Fangs evolved to catch and kill prey, the premolars helped grip dinner, and molars helped the predator crush and eat. As different carnivores evolved, their teeth became similar but not identical, depending on their prey. Your cat’s teeth, for instance, are better for cutting through skin than are your dog’s teeth. There’s reason why your cat isn’t saber-toothed – those great big fangs look ferocious, but evolutionarily speaking, they get in the way of a good meal.

But just because the animal in the barn isn’t a predator doesn’t mean it won’t bite. Horses can be nasty nippers, and their bites can do real damage. Bunnies can bite, pigs can kill with their teeth, and even though a cow is toothless on top, you’d be surprised at the strength of those bovine jaws.

The bottom line is, once you’ve been on the business end of a set of teeth, you’re probably going to think twice before you tempt them again. The same, undoubtedly, goes for …

Claws

Yes indeed, claws are also made of the same material as your fingernails. What are claws, after all, but really sharp fingernails? Generally speaking, claws aren’t probably a big deal to you. Dogs’ unclipped nails can result in unforeseen, although probably minor, pain, and you’ll never forget a rabbit’s hind claws if you ever meet them. The biggest exception to the “so what about claws theory” would be those needlelike ones belonging to your cat.

While felines purposefully sharpen their talons, cats’ claws are generally not terribly dangerous by themselves. Yes, a bad cat scratch can lay open an arm or leg in the nastiest of ways, but the bad news is if you’ve been nailed by a cat that hunts, you can only imagine where those claws have been.

On that note, remember: Being slashed by your cat isn’t fun, but think twice before declawing her, and you should never do it to your barn cats, as they won’t be able defend themselves. An outside cat without claws is on the downside of Life Number Nine.

Hooves

You might not be surprised to learn that hooves, too, are made of basically the same stuff your fingernails are made of: keratin, and just like your fingernails, a hoof will continue to grow throughout the animal’s life. This is true, whether the hoof is cloven (two parts, like a pig’s foot) or not (like a horse’s hoof).

At their very base, hooves are handy things used for running away. They can dig into the dirt for better traction and come in handy when leaping and climbing. In this sense, don’t discount flight as a defense. Horses, goats, pigs, and even cattle can outrun you, if even for short bursts. Forget about catching up to them. Unless you’re Usain Bolt, it ain’t happenin’.

The bigger danger with hooves is their sharpness and weight behind them. Ask any equestrian, and you’ll hear how a horse can pack a powerful punch. Nearly half of all horse-related injuries from the ground are from kicks that can send a person flying. At best, that’s a guaranteed bruise or maybe a broken bone; at worse, if that kick lands on someone’s noggin, the next ride could be in a hearse. And guess what? A mule’s hooves are harder than a horse’s hooves, and mules are said to have better aim. And that’s just from the back end.

A rearing horse can slash skin and break bones. Goats and sheep will kick with both front and back feet, and though their kicks are lower, they’re not any less painful on contact. Cows rarely rear in defense, but boy can they kick – usually one hind leg at a time.

As for being stepped on, that’s no fun either. Horses can weigh half a ton, cattle more than that, and bulls even more. All of them can intentionally or unintentionally trample you wherever they can reach you. Caution isn’t just a noun, and good boots with steel toes are not just a fashion statement.

They don’t get mad, they get even

A sheep’s best defense is to run with the herd (safety in numbers), but in a pinch, a thick coat of wool can work to a sheep’s advantage in a sticky situation. What predator wants a mouthful of wool?

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a cow’s tail, well, it ain’t fun. Do cows aim with their tails? I couldn’t find any evidence of it, but anybody who’s ever been whacked on the face with a tail would swear it’s on purpose. Would you be surprised?

Watch out if you’re in the vicinity of a ticked off cow, bull, horse or mule’s front end. Those knuckleheads aren’t light, and a good head swing can really knock you on your keister.

The bees in your backyard hive can sting you, and some animals have uncanny accuracy with bodily fluids (accidentally or on purpose). The smarter ones will figure out how to exact revenge any way they can.

So there you are: Reasons to buy armor, a helmet, goggles and good boots … because barn-tending is only for the brave!


Terri Schlichenmeyer, book reviewer and trivia collector, lives in Wisconsin with her two dogs and more than 11,000 books.