This review considers the possible events that can occur when cattle are exposed to Mycobacterium bovis and, where appropriate, draws on principles accepted for tuberculosis infection in humans and laboratory animal models. Consideration is given to the many complex factors which influence the outcome of challenge with tubercle bacilli. These include features inherent to the mycobacterium, the host and the environment. It is apparent that clinical disease probably occurs only in a relatively small, but undetermined, proportion of cattle that are exposed to Al. bovis. The majority of animals may clear infection or control the bacilli, possibly in a condition of latency. It is concluded that a better understanding of the dynamics of the events following M. bovis exposure and subsequent infection in cattle would be of significant benefit in developing new tools appropriate for disease control and to designing optimal approaches for their application.