How to Perform Rectal Palpation in Cows and Heifers

Rectal palpation is a very common and highly popular method among all cattle producers in primarily performing pregnancy checks on cows and heifers, and also for checking the reproductive organs of a bull during a bull breeding soundness exam. For the purpose of this article, though, the focus is primarily on cows and heifers. "Preg-checking" or pregnancy checking female cattle often yields successful results especially if performed by an experience technician. Rectal palpation is undoubtedly the messiest, yet cheapest and often quickest form of preg-checking that can be easily learned by all those who have a breeding herd of cattle.


  1. Image titled Detect Pregnancy in Cows and Heifers with Rectal Palpation Step 1
    Confine the cow. Put the female bovine to a squeeze chute or head-gate with gates on either side that prevents her from moving side-to-side.
  2. Image titled Detect Pregnancy in Cows and Heifers with Rectal Palpation Step 2
    Dress up. An OB (obstetrical) suit or coveralls are best for this job. However, if you have old clothes that you don't mind getting dirty, then those will work fine as well.
  3. Image titled Detect Pregnancy in Cows and Heifers with Rectal Palpation Step 3
    Glove up. Put on fingered latex shoulder-length gloves on the one arm (preferably your strongest arm) you will use to do rectal palpation with.
  4. Image titled Detect Pregnancy in Cows and Heifers with Rectal Palpation Step 4
    Lube up. Apply a handful of OB lubricant to your hand, and rub it so that it gets above your hand as well as the inside.
  5. Image titled Detect Pregnancy in Cows and Heifers with Rectal Palpation Step 5
    Go in. Grab the tail with one hand (the one not gloved up), hold up above your head (see photo above) and with the gloved one, form a kind of closed-puppet mouth configuration with your hand (thumb tip connecting with all four tips of your fingers), and with the point of the top of your fingers forming a 45 to 60 degree angle, push into the rectum of the cow.
    • You will have to push hard because the cow will be straining against you to push you out. Keep your wrist rigid and in-line with the rest of your arm, and keep your elbow flexed slightly so you have enough strength to push into the cow's rectum.
  6. Image titled Detect Pregnancy in Cows and Heifers with Rectal Palpation Step 6
    Expel unwanted feces that are taking up too much room. If the rectum is full of feces, then carefully scoop the loose fecal matter with your hand and retract your hand enough so that you can expel the feces for the cow. Expel enough of the feces that you have room enough to work, so you can reach and find the cervix.
  7. Image titled Detect Pregnancy in Cows and Heifers with Rectal Palpation Step 7
    Locate the cervix. It will be below your hand, as will the rest of the female bovine's reproductive tract. You should be able to feel a hard cylindrical shape part of the way in. If you are up to your shoulder in the cow and still can't find the cervix, you're too far in. Move back until you can feel the cylindrical object below your fingers.
  8. Image titled Detect Pregnancy in Cows and Heifers with Rectal Palpation Step 8
    Move further into the cow. If you have short arms, you may either need a stool to stand on, or have to go in right up to your shoulder to feel for anything in the fallopian tubes or uterus of the cow.
  9. Image titled Detect Pregnancy in Cows and Heifers with Rectal Palpation Step 9
    Feel for the fetus and uterine tract. If you feel anything that feels like the uterus is distended, with a small oval ball of liquid floating inside it or something that feels like a fetus, then you have found that the cow is bred. If you don't feel anything of the sort, just a uterus, then she may be open (not bred.)
    • It takes a lot of practice to know what you're feeling for. Often it's best to preg-check 2 to 5 months into the cow's gestation period, so that you know you are feeling for something larger than a golf-ball sized ovary. The sizes you should be feeling are according to how far along the cow is:
      • 2 months - size of a mouse
      • 3 months - size of a rat
      • 4 months - size of a small cat
      • 5 months - size of a large cat
      • 6 months - size of a small dog
      • 7 months - size of a Beagle
        • These size comparisons are useful if you have a dead premature calf that may have been aborted.
    • A vet or bovine practitioner who has had more experience and has preg-checked more cows will be more accurate than one who has done only a few cows. Thus saying, the more practice you get or the more chances you get to preg-check cows, the more accurate you'll become.
  10. Image titled Detect Pregnancy in Cows and Heifers with Rectal Palpation Step 10
    Pull out and release the cow. Once you've determined if the cow or heifer is pregnant and how far along, pull your arm out of the cow, and release her back into the herd, and repeat with another cow or heifer.
  11. Image titled Detect Pregnancy in Cows and Heifers with Rectal Palpation Step 11
    Discard glove into the trash after you are done.


  • The best determination of a cow's due date is from keeping good breeding records. If you know when a cow has been bred and if she did become pregnant, then you have a very good idea of when she will give birth.
  • Practice makes perfect. Don't expect to get it right off the bat, as you may have to be in the cow for a few minutes before you actually find anything.
  • The anus of a cow is located above the vulva, which is a slit below the anus. You need to go into the anus of the cow, not the vulva, to do proper preg-checking.
  • You may wish to take a course in Artificial Insemination provided by a company that sells bull semen to cattle producers (like Genex, Semex, Select Sires, etc.) to get a better understanding and get better instruction (and practice) of how to preg-check cows. Since AI'ing involves the same "invasive" procedures as described above, you will most likely learn how to preg-check along with how to AI cattle.
  • If you do not have the experience or cannot find the time to learn how to preg-check cows yourself, get a local large-animal veterinarian to do it for you. Make sure he/she's one that has done a lot of work on large animals like cattle and horses, so you will get less chance of mistakes than from one that only does this kind of job on occasion.
  • Some producers, vets, and your AI instructor will prefer to change gloves in between cows to prevent the spread of reproductive diseases like Trichomoniasis. Often this is a good hygienic practice to adopt to prevent any spread of disease from one cow to another.
  • The best times to preg-check cattle is 45 to 90 days after breeding. Limits may be reached by the time the cow is in her last trimester (often 7 to 9 months gestation), because for some cattle the fetus may put pressure on the rectum making it more difficult to reach in for a feel.
  • There are many other indications that a cow is pregnant besides feeling for a fetus and/or an enlarged uterus.
    • The position of the ovaries may change as pregnancy progresses, pulling them deeper into the abdominal cavity.
    • Between 5.5 and 7.5 months it may be more difficult to feel the fetus because it may have descended deeper into the abdominal cavity. If you can reach far enough, you may be able to feel the head or flexed limbs of the fetus.
    • From 7.5 months to the end of gestation, it may be a bit easier to feel for the fetus because you would be able to feel the head and possibly feet as well, depending on how the fetus is positioned in the uterus. However, some cows may be quite deep-bodied from having several other previous calves that it still may be difficult to feel for a fetus. Feeling for the cotyledons on the placenta is one way of determining pregnancy; feeling for the uterine veins is another method, as they will be larger and have a strong vibrating pulse when palpated.
  • Observation is another method of determining pregnancy in cows. Things like increase in belly-size during late gestation, changes in the udder, or a swelling along the belly just before the udder may develop.
    • If you have been observing and recording the regular heat cycles of your cows, and find that they have missed one or two or more heat cycles, then this is yet another indication of pregnancy.


  • Some cows may be a bit less tolerant you sticking your arm up their rear than others. You may get kicked, or the cow may suddenly decide she wants to move around or go down with you still inside her. Try to move with her as best as you can, but there will be risk for pulling a muscle in your arm or even breaking your arm if things really get out of hand.
  • If you get easily grossed out from things like fresh stinky cow poop or having to rectal palpate your cows, or just even the thought of having to do it, then don't do it. Get a large-animal vet to do it for you.
  • Don't pull out too fast, otherwise you will end up with a pile of cow manure all over you. Pull out slow and easy, allowing the anus to naturally close on its own as you pull out.
  • Make sure you're going in the right "hole." If you go in the vulva, you could potentially cause an abortion since you may have taken away the cervical plug, or palpated the fetus a little too much.
    • Too vigorous a palpation through the rectal wall may cause abortions or the death of a fetus. You could sever the connection between the placenta and uterine wall, cutting off the fetus's life-giving connection between it and the dam. Be firm yet gentle, and do not be too aggressive with your actions.

Things You'll Need

  • Shoulder length latex fingered gloves (have a pack of over 100 if necessary)
  • Coveralls or OB suit (especially if you don't want to get your clothes dirty)
  • OB lube
  • Head-gate with squeeze chute
  • Cows/heifers that need preg-checking

Article Info

Categories: Cattle