Bison vs Ox: 5 Key Differences Explained

Written by Hannah Ward
Published: February 27, 2022
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When we talk about oxen, quite often people don’t actually know what they are.  Some people think they’re a species of their own, while others think that they’re just another common name for a different animal entirely.  Therefore, it’s not surprising that some people think that they’re another name for a bison.  The truth is bison and oxen are both large herbivorous mammals, but they are certainly completely different animals entirely.  But just how different are they?  Join us as we discover all of the key differences between bison and oxen.

Comparing Ox vs Bison

Bison vs Ox
Bison and ox are both large animals but have several key differences.

Bison are wild animals that are best known for their large size, shaggy coat, and sharp horns.  There are two species of bison – American (Bison bison) and European (Bison bonasus) – and they roam grasslands and forests mainly within North America and Europe.  They have an unpredictable nature and are considered to be extremely dangerous.

Oxen are not their own individual species but are cattle that are used as working animals.  An ox is typically a castrated male cow (Bos Taurus) which is used to pull carts, farm machinery, or other loads.

Check out the chart below to learn a few of the main differences between bison and oxen.

LocationAsia, Africa, Europe, USUS, Canada, Mexico, Russia, Germany, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Switzerland
HabitatWhereever they are used for workGrassland, river valleys, deciduous and mixed forests
SizeWeight – 1,500 to 3,000 pounds
Height – up to 5ft 8in at the shoulder
Weight – 700 to 2,180 pounds
Height – 5ft 9in to 6ft 7in at the shoulder
GenderMale (castrated), more than 4 years oldMale and female
ColorVaries depending on breed of cattleDark brown, black
Body ShapeHeavy body, short back, well developed musclesLarge, heavy body, large head, shaggy coat, beard under chin
HumpNoYes, humped shoulders
HornsTypically, although size and shape depends on breed of cattleShort and curved

The 5 Key Differences Between Bison and Oxen

The main difference that separates bison and oxen is their size, with bison being larger. In addition, the term ox is generally used to describe castrated male cows. Also, the coloration and level of domestication in both animals vary. Let’s dive into each difference in more detail!

Bison vs Ox: Size


Bison can weigh more than 2,000 pounds and stand more than 6 feet tall

©O.S. Fisher/

Although you probably wouldn’t expect it, oxen can actually be heavier than bison.  Bison themselves are pretty hefty with most weighing between 700 and 2,180 pounds and standing between 5ft 9in and 6ft 7in at the shoulder, whereas oxen typically weigh between 1,500 and 3,000 pounds.  This is because only the largest, heaviest, and strongest cattle are selected to become oxen due to the nature of the work that they do and the strength that is required.  However, they are heavier, oxen are actually not as tall as bison and only reach heights of up to 5ft 8ins.

Bison vs Ox: Color

In most cases, the color of the animal is a significant difference between bison and oxen.  Bison are typically only dark brown or black, but oxen have a much more varied appearance.  This is because the color of them depends on what breed of cattle they are – so oxen can be white, brown, black, grey, or have various patches and patterns on their coat.

Bison vs Ox: Gender

The biggest difference between bison and oxen is their gender.  Bison are a completely unique animal themselves with breeding males and females.  However, oxen are actually castrated male cows.  Typically oxen are only adult males that are more than four years old.  Oxen are only males as they are usually the strongest which makes them more suited to working as a draft animal, whereas female cows are used for breeding and for producing milk.  The males are castrated to make them more docile and easier to handle and train.

Bison vs Ox: Appearance

Bison and oxen also have a vastly different appearance, and it’s not just to do with their size and color.  Oxen are essentially cows so have the same body shape.  However, as they are males which have been selected for their working role they are strong and muscular.  They typically have a heavy body with short back and sturdy legs.  Oxen usually have horns, although the size and shape of them differs depending on the breed of cattle.  The age that the bull was castrated also has an effect on the size of the horns, with those that were castrated later having longer and larger horns than those castrated at a younger age.

Bison have a distinctive appearance and they are best known for their large, heavy bodies and large heads.  Bison typically have a long, shaggy coat and noticeably humped shoulders.  They also have a set of short, curved horns and a long beard underneath their chin.

Bison vs Ox: Domestication

oxen working together

Oxen have been used for pulling heavy loads since around 4,000BC


Although some bison can be tamed well enough to live in private herds or to crossbreed with cattle, they are never truly domesticated and always retain their wild nature and instincts.

On the other hand, oxen are completely domesticated and are used to carry out a range of jobs – such as pulling ploughs and other farm machinery, pulling carts, or even for logging.  Oxen were first used as working animals around six thousand years ago and were preferred to horses as – although slower – they could pull heavier loads than horses and were steadier of temperament.  Oxen usually work in pairs, with several pairs being used to pull heavier loads (often up to eight or nine pairs), or a single pair to pull lighter loads such as a cart.  They are taught to respond to commands and are harnessed to a “yoke”.  There are various types of yoke, but it is typically a wooden contraption which is used to attach the oxen to the item they are pulling.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Szczepan Klejbuk/

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About the Author

Hannah is a writer at A-Z animals where her primary focus is on reptiles, marine life, mammals, and geography. Hannah has been writing and researching animals for four years alongside running her family farm. A resident of the UK, Hannah loves riding horses and creating short stories.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are oxen still used today?

Despite being used worldwide for thousands of years, the use of oxen is now drastically reduced.  In America alone, they virtually disappeared from farming in the late 1800s.  However, although machinery has revolutionized farming, oxen are still used in some countries today.

Are there any wild bison left?

Although most American bison live in private herds or in national parks (where they are roaming wild), there are still herds of truly wild European bison left in several countries.  However, the range of both species is drastically reduced compared to where they historically roamed due to their near extinction in the 1800s.

Which cattle breeds are used as oxen?

Oxen can be any breed of cattle, but due to the nature of the work that they do larger breeds are generally preferred.  Again, the breed can even depend on which country they are in and which is most popular there.

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