Downer Cows

By Barry Whitworth, DVM

Area Food/Animal Quality and Health Specialist for Eastern Oklahoma

Most cattle producers at some point will have to deal with a downer cow. The experience is often frustrating for a variety of reasons. Diagnosing the condition can be difficult, because even when a diagnosis is obtained, treatment can be unrewarding. Many times, the producer is left with an animal that eats, drinks, and appears healthy but is unable to rise.

Cattle go down for a variety of reasons. Electrolyte imbalances such as low calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and potassium may result in cattle becoming recumbent. A severe toxemia or infection such as a uterine or mammary infection are examples of illnesses that may result in a downer cow. Traumatic injuries such as hip dislocation or fractures to the limbs will result in a cow unable to stand. Obturator or sciatic nerve damage, which is associated with difficult births, may cause paralysis of one or both hind limbs. Lymphosarcoma, if located in the spinal region, also may result in the loss of function of one or all the limbs. Neurological diseases such as a brain infection may cause a downer cow.

Down cattle need to be dealt with as quickly as possible. Any cow found lying on its side (lateral recumbency) needs to be set up on its chest (sternal recumbency) as soon as possible. Cattle in lateral recumbency are prone to bloat, which can lead to death. Producers may need to use some type of prop such as hay bales in order to keep the cow upright.

If the cow is in a poor location and needs to be moved, a sled should be used. Ropes or chains should never be tied around the neck or legs to drag the cow. This may result in more or additional damage to the cow.

It is wise to have a veterinarian examine the cow and begin treatment as soon as possible. The earlier the diagnosis and intervention occurs, the better chance for recovery. Even if the animal does not recover, the diagnosis may be important in the treatment of other animals or preventing future problems. Some cows will have some secondary problems associated with being down, and early treatment may limit these complications. Treatment success is never a guarantee, but delaying the examination and testing will only increase the chance for treatment failure.

Read more about downer cows in the April issue of Oklahoma Farm & Ranch.