Bison vs Cow: What Are the Differences?

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© iStock.com/Jillian Cooper

Written by Kyle Glatz

Published: February 18, 2022

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Bison are often confused for other animals, especially buffalo. While that mystery is usually solved by understanding where bison live and where buffalo live, it’s possible to confuse bison for other animals. For example, certain species of cattle can look similar to bison. With that in mind, we’re going to explore the differences between a bison vs cow and show you what sets them apart. You’ll learn about six key variations in these mammals that can help you further your understanding of both species!

Comparing a Bison vs Cow

Bison vs Cow
Bison and cows have a number of key differences including their size, horns, and body shape.
BisonCow
SizeWeight: 2,200lbs-3,000lbs
Height: 5ft-6.5ft at the shoulder, up to 9ft-11ft at the hump
Length: 6ft-9ft
Weight: 880lbs- 1760lbs
Height: 4.5-5ft at the shoulder Length: 5ft-6ft
Horns-Both males and females have small, black, upward-curving hornsSome female cow species have horns, and some do not
Body Shape– Massive head and beard of fur on both male and females
– Neck not as distinct due to musculature
Unique hump that grows on the back and looms far above its head
– Wide midsection from calving
– Large head, distinct neck
– Head is higher than back
HairLong, shaggy, brown hair– Hair comes in many colors including white, brown, black, tan
– Short hair in most cows, but some species, like the Highland Cattle have long, shaggy hair
LocationExclusive to North America with cousins in EuropePresent on every continent but Antarctica
Speed– 40 mph– 25 mph

The 6 Key Differences Between a Bison vs Cow

American bison in the middle of the road

Bison can be male or female while cows are only female.

©iStock.com/IngerEriksen

The greatest differences between a bison vs cow include their size, body shape, and location. A bison is much larger than a cow, growing up to twice the size of the female bovine. Bison are also taller and longer than cows, too.

The bison has a distinct body shape that is punctuated by the large hump on its back, the massive, fur-covered heads, and a somewhat indistinct neck-head area. Cows are smaller than bison, but still have a wide midsection, a large head and distinct neck, and a head that is higher than the rest of their bodies.

Lastly, cows are found all over the planet except for Antarctica, but bison are only found in North America. These are the greatest differences between the animals, but they are not the only ones that we can find. Let’s take a closer look at more ways that these animals are different from each other.

Bison vs Cow: Size

Bison are larger than cows. In fact, bison are some of the largest animals in North America. Cows can grow between 800lbs and 1,700lbs, 5-6ft long, and stand 5.5ft tall at the shoulder. Bison can grow upwards of 3,000lbs, stand 6.5ft at the shoulder (11ft at the hump), and measure about 9ft long when fully grown.

Bison are far larger than cows, and you would notice an immediate and distinct difference between these animals if you placed them in the same area.  

The largest bison in the world was a male that weighed 3,800lbs. Although this account was not confirmed by any governing body, the measurement shows just how large these animals can be when they reach their utmost size. At any rate, they make most cows seem small by comparison, and they remain the largest land animals in the U.S.

Bison vs Cow: Horns

All bison, male and female, have horns, but many cows do not have horns. Some species of female cattle do grow horns, but even those that do have them removed when they’re young and living on a farm. Bisons’ horns are small, curved upward, and black. They might be hard to see against their fur.

Many cows have horns, but they are usually less prominent than a bull’s horns. The horns tend to be small, and they might point upright or curve forward depending on the species. Polled cow breeds do not grow horns at all.

Bison vs Cow: Body Shape

Best farm animals

Cows are nearly rectangular, but bison have more mass concentrated near their head

©iStock.com/DutchScenery

Bisons’ body shape is far different than a cow’s, with most of their apparent heft concentrated at the front of their bodies instead of being equally distributed like a cow’s. Cows are generally rectangular in shape with a large midsection that they gain from giving birth to calves, a big head, and a distinct neck.

Bison have very large heads that are covered with a beard of fur that is longer than the rest of the fur on their body. Their necks are so large and thick that they are not distinct; it’s hard to tell where their neck ends and their body begins.

The bison also has a very large shoulder hump that extends far above the bison’s head, giving the creature a look as though they are permanently hunched over. Needless to say, the body shapes of bison and cows are very different.

Bison vs Cow: Hair

cow and calf

Cows can have hair in many colors, including black and white patterns!

©iStock.com/Diane Kuhl

Bison have fur, but cows have hair. Cow hair is shorter than bison fur, and it comes in a very wide variety of colors. Cows may be black, tan, reddish, white, brown, and multi-colored mixes of these colors, usually a light and dark mix. Bison fur is dark brown with some light brown in the longer sections of the fur.

Bison vs Cow: Location

Bison as we know them only live in North America, but cows live all over the world. In fact, cows can be found on every single continent except for Antarctica.

However, close relatives to the North American Bison, called the European Bison, live in parts of Belarus and other areas in Europe. These animals look somewhat similar to their cousins, but the North American Bison is much heavier than its European cousin. Sadly, it’s believed that just a few thousand live on the continent these days.

Bison vs Cow: Speed

Two wild wood bison grazing in Alaska national park.

Wild bison can reach speeds of 40 mph when charging

©Photo Spirit/Shutterstock.com

Bison are much faster than cows. Although some cows can reach speeds of 25 mph when they are fleeing or trying to charge an enemy, bison can run at 40 mph. These animals are incredibly large and fast, making a charging herd of them an incredible sight to behold.

Bison are larger, faster, stronger, and have a smaller population than cows. These mammals were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century, but the population has slowly recovered under the careful guidance of conservation efforts. These days, 20,000 pure-bred bison roam the U.S. alongside 500,000 bison-cattle hybrids, a fact that shows just how closely related bison and cows are and how effective conservation efforts can be.


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About the Author

Kyle Glatz is a writer at A-Z-Animals where his primary focus is on geography and mammals. Kyle has been writing for researching and writing about animals and numerous other topics for 10 years, and he holds a Bachelor's Degree in English and Education from Rowan University. A resident of New Jersey, Kyle enjoys reading, writing, and playing video games.

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