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Dealing with downer cattle, not simple or easy

Animal Health: There are many reasons a seemingly healthy cow can go down, 
and quite often no easy procedure to get her back up

cattle on a pasture

Farmers and veterinarians since the beginning of time have pondered over the proverbial downer cow. Typically, a downer cow surprises the farmer. It is often a perfectly healthy animal with no presenting history suddenly found down and unable to rise. Because cattle, especially mature ones, are such heavy beasts, complications can ensue after being down for even a short time. Pressure sores, stiff muscles from trying to rise, or cattle becoming spread-eagled are common conditions after a cow has been down for a while. It is these complications, which the veterinarian must also treat in order to arrive at a favourable outcome.

With many in-house blood testing tools now available at most veterinary clinics several tests may be performed on downer cattle to determine the cause. While “milk fever” is often implicated, deficiencies of calcium, phosphorus or magnesium can resemble one another greatly. With dairy cattle, the true “milk fever” results from a shortage of calcium generally at parturition when the demand for milk and thus calcium is greatest.

Beef cattle can have milk fevers show up at different times, either before calving or late into the lactation. Often poor mineral utilization or improper feeding is the root cause.

Veterinarians now will often take a blood sample to test for levels of those three minerals. If deficient, then the diagnosis is made and treatment initiated to alleviate the situation. In my experience the grass tetany downer from magnesium deficiency is less likely to recover once down. Phosphorus leads to the proverbial “creeper” cow, which can take along time to get up. A producer needs to consider any cattle affected by these mineral deficiencies might just be the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the herd should be closely scrutinized and some cows possibly randomly checked (blood tested) to confirm the herd status and prevent other cases from developing.

Injuries can create a downer

Injuries to the neck or peripheral nerves can also cause downer animals, representing a great diagnostic challenge to your veterinarian. Once an animal is down, performing a thorough clinical exam can be difficult. Ambulation is better to check out severe lameness’s or trauma cases. A blown stifle (knee) or broken leg can present as a downer animal. It is important to proper examine a downer that your veterinarian rolls the animal over and closely examines all four legs closely. Lightning strikes — where the animal has survived — damages the peripheral nerves and a downer may be the end result.

With parturition, a difficult birthing can cause pressure on the obturator nerves where they run through the pelvis resulting in knuckling and weakness to the hind end. If caught early, anti-inflammatory drugs recommended by your veterinarian may help significantly. One must be careful. Bad mastitis, metritis (infected uterus), or cases of tetanus brought on by retained placentas can fool even experienced practitioners. They can occur just after calving. Sick enough cows will be unable to rise simply because of weakness and toxemia.

Any condition, which results in dehydration: septicemias or toxemias may result in downer animals. These may be sudden or occur over several days. If the cattle appear sick and depressed a large number of maladies will cause enough weakness or toxemia to cause a downer situation. Severe electrolyte imbalances (as an example too much potassium (K) in the bloodstream) can cause cattle to go down. Again most of these electrolytes levels can be tested by your veterinarian to make sure the proper ailment is being treated.

If very excitable cattle get out and run for a considerable period they can go down due to muscle damage. It is called “capture myopathy” and happens when zoo animals are captured. Selenium may help, but once down prognosis is poor.

You can see downers are caused by a multitude of medical conditions most with entirely different treatments. With some, treatment results in a very favourable prognosis while other outlooks are poor.

Seek medical advice

The important thing is getting them looked at immediately by your veterinarian to determine the cause. In the meantime, provide soft footing to prevent pressure sores from developing. Roll the downers side to side several times daily to help prevent further nerve damage. Hobble the feet together to avoid splay legging and where indicated, anti-inflammatory drugs may also be in order. Of course the essentials of life, good quality water and feed must be provided. Shade on very hot days is essential. Watch for fly strike around the rectal and vaginal areas.

With broken legs or stifle injuries, it maybe necessary for emergency slaughter so do not rush in and treat unless the exact cause is known. The transport of large downers is really frowned upon from an animal rights issue so it is best to emergency slaughter right on site. We also see some downers related to very thin cows late in pregnancy carrying twins or a large calf. With the increasing nutritional draw in heavy pregnancy cows can get so thin they are simply unable to rise. Hopefully the cow is close enough to full term so calving could be induced to alleviate the cow of all that weight and nutritional drain.

Hip lifters and slings can be employed to lift cattle but I only suggest this if certain criteria are met. Cattle must be trying to rise and when lifted to bear some weight themselves. If the animal is just hanging, there is no point in lifting. Only lift for 15 to 20 minutes twice daily. The hiplifters also cause muscle bruising so you want the benefits to outweigh the negatives. The slings are less damaging but more labour intensive. In certain sectors of the dairy industry tanks are used to float cows with amazing results. I wish these could be more practical and available for the beef sector. Certain practitioners are having some success with acupuncture for the nerve-damaged cases.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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