Bruises in cattle develop after the application of force, and they provide evidence for sub-optimal animal welfare. The aim of this study was to describe the gross characteristics of bruises in cows arriving at the slaughterhouse directly from farms or through the livestock market. The number of bruises and their distribution on the carcass as well as their severity, shape, size and colour were assessed post mortem in a slaughterhouse in Chile. A total of 258 cow carcasses were evaluated, and a total of 846 bruises were found on 243 of the carcasses. Cows that had passed through a livestock market (M-carcasses) had in total 563 bruises (mean 3.8 bruises/carcass, s.d. 2.0), whereas cows transported directly from farms (F-carcasses) had in total 283 bruises (mean 2.5 bruises/carcass, s.d. 1.8). The backs of F-carcasses had twice as many bruises as M-carcasses (32.9% and 16.2%, respectively), whereas bruises in the rib area were more frequently observed in M-carcasses (13.1%) than in F-carcasses (8.1%). Superficial bruises (grade 1) were the most frequently observed (66.2% of all bruises). Regarding the size of the bruises, 64 (7.6%) were classified as large, 271 (32.0%) as medium and 511 (60.4%) as small. Irregularly shaped bruises were the most frequent (91.1%, n = 771), followed by linear (3.8%, n = 32), circular (3.1%, n = 26) and tramline-shaped bruises (1.9%, n = 16). The latter were noticed only in M-carcasses, which may indicate that these animals were beaten more frequently with sticks or other rod-shaped objects. Fresh, bright red-coloured bruises were found more frequently on all the animals (69.5% from farms and 70.5% from market) compared with bluish (29.7% and 29.3%, respectively) and yellow bruises (0.4% and 0.2%, respectively). The method of selling was significantly associated with the number of bruises on the carcass (P < 0.001) and the anatomical site (P < 0.05), but not with the severity, shape and colour of the bruises. Increased fat coverage reduced the severity of bruises (P < 0.001). This study shows that, in Chile, market animals have more bruises than those sourced directly from farms, and their distribution is different. More information about the causes of infliction may help reduce bruises and it may also improve their welfare. Further studies are required to elucidate whether the causes of the high bruising in the case of animals passing through markets are related only to extra handling (repeated loading, unloading, transportation, eventual mixing) or to the way of handling by personnel and inadequate design.