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Hole-y Cow

Article #93 • Written by Daniel Lew

Animals can live a surprising amount of time with a permanent hole to their stomach, especially if it is a surgically made fistula. Humans have had fistulas; the first human on record as having one was a French Canadian by the name of Alexis St. Martin. He sustained a life-threatening musket wound in 1822, and was marked a terminal case by his physician. However, he managed to heal and was mostly functional again within two years - except for a hole in his stomach that would never close. Through this hole doctors were able to examine inner workings of his stomach.

Nowadays, agricultural scientists learn about the digestive system of cattle by putting holes in cows - and the cows stay alive and well. These cows (fitted with a sealing cover called a "cannula") each have a hole into their stomach. Through this hole one can extract food caught mid-stream through the digestive system.

Fistulated cows are used to research the digestibility of different foodstuffs for cattle. One can feed the cow, then later catch the food while it's digesting to see how it's doing. Without fistulated cows, one would have to look at external factors in order to garner information about the best food for cows - none of which are as accurate as food sampled right from the stomach. Since cattle is such an important part of life (for milk and beef), it is important to feed them well.

Do not worry too much about negative effects of fistulation on the cow: the operation does not cause the cow any pain, and even prolongs the lifespan of cows. A fistulated cow that grows sick to its stomach can have helping substances put in directly. Plus, a single fistulated cow benefits livestock all over the world.

One could understand how some people might get upset based on a fistulated cow's alternate purpose - entertainment. Occasionally scientists will let people stick their hands inside of the cow to see what it is like. So, if you ever find yourself wondering what the inside of a cow is like, make friends with someone at an agricultural university.

Article written by Daniel Lew, published on 12 January 2006. Daniel is a contributing editor for

Edited by Alan Bellows.

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Posted 13 January 2006 at 12:30 am

They do this all the time at my University (NMSU), kinda neat.

Daniel Lew
Posted 13 January 2006 at 07:24 am

I've seen a fistulated cow multiple times at UCDavis, though I've never taken the opportunity to stick my hand in it (unfortunately).

John M.
Posted 13 January 2006 at 07:54 am

Oh gosh that is disgusting. Thanks for ruining my lunch.

Posted 13 January 2006 at 09:50 am

It would have to be a truly odd situation, and sensation, to be standing about with ones' arm inside a living bovine. Especially awkward if the cow can look back at you. I have to wonder though if anyone has had the misfortune of tickling the animals innards and having it bound off with their arm still inside... (I can picture this happening to the Benny Hill "Yakety Sax" song all too easily).

The End
Posted 13 January 2006 at 12:03 pm

I don't think nerves are anywhere near as sensitive on your insides. Many organs have virtually no nerves, such as the brain, which can be poked and moved around without you feeling much. :D

Posted 13 January 2006 at 01:56 pm

The cows don't feel a thing but I can assure you that the first-year graduate students sent to collect the samples do.

Posted 13 January 2006 at 02:28 pm

Fistulate sounds dirty... Sing along with me, okay?
"I wanna fistulate you like an animal.
I wanna feel you from the inside..."

Posted 13 January 2006 at 04:02 pm

"I wanna fistulate you like an animal.

I wanna feel you from the inside…""

Haha, bravo!

Bryan Lowder
Posted 13 January 2006 at 06:41 pm

I will pay you the ultimate compliment, Daniel... I wish I'd thought of this article. Nice.

Posted 13 January 2006 at 08:41 pm

Something I had never thought of, seen, or heard of. Interesting. I assume the cow that has this done is never returned to whole rather unhole again?

Posted 14 January 2006 at 07:42 am

and might I assume that this cow is fed (w)hole grains

Posted 14 January 2006 at 11:53 am

This gives a new meaning to "Whole Milk"...... muhaha

Posted 14 January 2006 at 09:29 pm

I was under the impression that cows have four stomachs...where are the four hole cows!

Posted 15 January 2006 at 10:46 pm

I knew that cow on the farm we used to drive by everyday had a hole in its side! NO ONE BELIEVED ME!

Posted 20 January 2006 at 05:03 pm

Animals can live a surprising amount of time with a permanent hole to their stomach ...

That's my favourite part. It's hilarious!

Posted 26 March 2006 at 11:55 am

It looks like it's got a little handle. Portable cow! Or maybe, if it had two holes, you could thread a shoelace through it.

Posted 30 March 2006 at 08:42 am

Did anyone else see that episode of Oprah where those African women had fistulas? Sooo sad.

Shhhhhhhh....don't tell anyone I watched Oprah.

Posted 26 September 2006 at 02:28 pm

Actually, a cow has only one stomach with four compartments. Fistulated cows are very interesting, and it's a lot of fun to stick one's hand inside. Every 30-60 secoinds their stomach goes through a contraction and you can feel it. You can also feel the papillae (similar to villi) on the inside of the stomach wall. But the food being digested smells rather...ripe, shall we say? I suggest breathing through your mouth. Also, some people wonder if bacteria ever get inside the cow. Well, yes, but they already have thousands of microbes living in their stomach which actually break down the feed, so any new ones are unnoticed. If anyone had questions, I hope that helped.

"I wanna fistulate you like an animal.
I wanna feel you from the inside…"

Alan Bellows
Posted 21 December 2006 at 04:59 pm

I received this comment by e-mail some time ago, but it went overlooked until today:

Not so many years ago when I was employed by the Shaklee Corporation I was given the title Manager, Agriculture Research. This typical example of corporate cynicism meant that I had to contend with the extravagantly outrageous claims made by distributors for many of the Shaklee products including the (in)famous Basic-H.

This formulation of synthetic surfactants and blue dye was positioned as organic, biodegradable etc., etc. As a consequence Basic-H was sold as a panacea for everything that ailed humans as well as poor uncomplaining livestock. One recipient of this Basic-H was beef and dairy cattle. Basic-H was claimed to improve the feed utilisation, increase milk production and so on.

Now I have never been a big supporter of the FDA but quite clearly in this instance the agency was correct. One cannot feed livestock 'things' that are not approved.

My 'job' was to sort out the wheat from the chaff of all the claims being made by distributors. I decided very early in my tenure to look into this Basic-H cattle feeding.

The official Shaklee Corporation was that this was not an authorised use but as was the case generally Shaklee did nothing to discourage such practices.

I recall visiting many Shaklee 'dairy and cattle' people with professors of renowned universities of agriculture research. One such visit was with Prof. Earle E. Bartley of KSU in Manhattan, KS.

Prof. Bartley was an expert on legume bloat. This is often "relieved" by puncturing a hole with a knife in between the ribs of a cow. For this reason I was mildly amused to read some of the comments concerning the surgical placement of fistulas.

In any event, Bartley had developed a polyethylene/polypropylene product which was extremely effective in reducing legume bloat and had received FDA approval for its use.

He used fistulated cattle in development of his product. There is no other way to assess the condition. Different cattle are susceptible to bloat to different extents and one such 'happy camper' - aptly named Puffy - was fed Basic-H.

When the plug over the fistula was removed from Puffy a jet of fluid 9-inches in diameter was thrown 20-feet. [I still have a color slide of Puffy exhibiting enhanced jet coherence].

This proved two things:

1. Puffy had been rightly named and
2. Basic-H did nothing for bloat.


W. Glenn Howells, Ph.D.

Posted 30 December 2006 at 12:37 pm


Posted 19 January 2007 at 03:30 pm

Heh, foul-smelling jets of bovine stomache acid 20 feet. I gotta see this slide!

Posted 09 August 2008 at 05:37 pm

I can also confirm the fistula cow/s at University of California at Davis AKA Berkeley w/ Cows.

Posted 01 September 2008 at 06:13 am

I remember my grade 5 teacher telling me about the guys with the hole in his stomach and to this day I still kinda have nightmares about it.

Not saying it's wrong to do but it just makes me cringe.

Posted 12 September 2008 at 04:45 am

it was good.. through fistulation, man can improve the livestock production. i hope Central Luzon State University vetmed students headed by Maam Darlene Fe Castro can perform that too.. it will be a great experiment by batch teratogens.. Ahehehe. Go CLSU vets,,

Posted 23 November 2008 at 11:45 pm

Up here in Fairbanks, we have a research at the university that studies musk oxen. They have a musk ox with a fistula. From what I understand, it's not really any different from the ones for cows. They just have to be a little more careful when taking samples. They say that the musk oxen are, shall we say, "semi-domesticated."

Posted 19 February 2009 at 08:14 am

They have been doing this for a long time at Mississippi State University. I remember going on a field trip in kindegarten and sticking my hand in one of these cows at MSU.

Posted 21 January 2010 at 06:04 pm

You can see this on TV. On an episode of Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs show, the host, Mike Rowe, visits the University of Arkansas where they have a Jersey cow with a fistula. They even put a camera inside to watch the digestion!

Posted 05 March 2012 at 12:32 am

The practical is better, but you want to take a control methods to reduce the pain & fear of the animal that you used for that practicle

Abigail Perez
Posted 09 May 2014 at 11:17 pm

I can see that you post only those that agree or have no gutts to tell you that you're sick. Dont really care, as long as you know that nature didnt intend for these types of animal treatments and you will some day see, it will come back to haunt you.

Posted 24 February 2015 at 06:41 pm

I know this is a pretty old article, and please forgive me for reviving it, but as a medical student, I must pick on this a little bit...

"I don't think nerves are anywhere near as sensitive on your insides. Many organs have virtually no nerves, such as the brain, which can be poked and moved around without you feeling much. :D"

your brain is probably the worst example you can give of a "nerve-less" organ, it is literally comprised of all nervous tissue. nerves are bundles of nervous tissue. While the brain may not have pain receptors, or pressure receptors, (called nociceptors and baroceptors respectively), it quite certainly has nervous tissue.

again, my apologies. *end rant*

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