I am distracted by wondering if this is deliberate...
I heard about this for the first time this morning. I know, where have I BEEN?!!? Well, I've been on farms, where cows walk up and down all sorts of things but stairs aren't one of them, or I've been in cities, where there are lots of stairs but no cows. So it's never come up until now.
Apparently it's quite a big thing, this belief that cows can't walk down stairs. Now, I know sheep can because I've observed them escaping from woolsheds out the front door and down the stairs. And I know horses can because I've ridden horses downstairs. But cows? Hmm.. I have to be honest and say I've never seen a cow walk down stairs, but I see no reason why they couldn't.
I have seen cows walk down:
Hills steeper than 45 degrees
Hills steeper than 45 degrees with steps carved out by sheep tracks running across them
Steep rocky faces
Concrete ramps with chunks cut out for grip
Wooden ramps from cattle trucks with slats nailed on for grip
WAIT! I have also seen a cow get into the pit on a dairy farm (the lowered bit where you stand to put the cups on) - this involves descending about three or four steps - but it's also a short enough distance to be able to jump and I can't remember whether she walked or jumped in.
So I have no definitive answer based on experience. When in doubt, Google! So I did.
Answerbag.com says Yes/No/Yes. According to the naysayer, it's because of their knees.
Answers.com says No. Apparently their front and back leg joints are coordinated wrongly or something. To which I go "But horses and sheep have the same thing and they can do it!"
The Discovery community says No, because the front legs can't support their weight when they bend their knees to take the next step and they'll go face first. To which I say bollocks, because if that were the case they wouldn't be able to walk downhill at all. Cows' front legs are designed to hold all their weight as they walk. Duh.
WikiAnswers and the Snopes forum both seem to think that it's possible for a cow to walk downstairs but that they'd find it hard and would rather not.
Then there's this:
That's a video of a cow walking down stairs. Except it's only three steps so in my opinion, not definitive proof.
Having thought about it and watched the video, here's my conclusion. Cows can walk downstairs. BUT. As you can see, cows are not high-stepping creatures. They can high-step but it doesn't come naturally to them. When going downhill they prefer to keep their hindlegs underneath them and take small, low steps. Front legs are no problem as discussed before. But when taking the step with the hind legs that's required to negotiate a stair, they have to high-step to get over the edge, which is awkward for them. And when they bring the foot down, the likelihood of catching the dewclaws on the edge of the step is high. Cow dewclaws look like this (on the right):
And to rip one of them off would be painful and laming. Cows, who are not as stupid as people think they are, especially when it comes to self-preservation, know this. They see an ungiving surface* with jaggedy edges that they will find it hard to walk down (they know this too, having been, you know, moving like a cow since birth) - there's not really enough room on each step for them to place the hind foot without risk to the dewclaws. Additionally, cows' eyes are on the side of their heads, and if their vision is anything like horses this means that their focus gets poorer the closer something is to them - especially something that's in the lower part of their vision.
* Dirt surfaces are giving and thus don't pose this problem.
So this cow is confronted with something that it can't see very clearly, but that looks like it has the potential to be dangerous to traverse. As a prey animal, its natural instinct will be to avoid if possible. But if pushed, it'll give it a go. To save its life it would probably try to jump them, which would not go well for the cow if it were a long flight. If presented with no options but in no hurry, the cow would, as the one in the video did, go really carefully. And if it did it regularly, the cow would learn.
But I still have no proof. Anyone got a cow I can borrow for a day or two?
Holy crap I just geeked out about cows. O.o
OHAI it's Friday! And it's pink ribbon day. Everyone in the office is wearing pink. It's.. awesome.