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What are Downer Cattle?

Jessica Ellis
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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Downer cattle are cows that cannot walk because of injury or disease. Many farming experts recommend the slaughter of downer cattle as a humane response to their condition. Downer cows are considered potential sources of mad cow disease, a fatal illness that experts say may be transmittable to humans who consume infected meat. In 2008, The American Meat Institute, National Meat Association and National Milk Association petitioned the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to institute a governmental ban on selling meat from downed cows for human consumption, but so far no comprehensive ban has been passed.

Injury to a cow may cause it to become a downer or splitter. Frequently, calving problems are the main cause. If a cow has a difficult delivery because of a large calf or badly positioned calf, it can cause “splitting” or the inability to use the hind legs. Downers can also be caused by leg fractures, most often from stepping into a gopher or prairie dog hole. Additionally, difficult journeys to the slaughterhouse can leave cows crippled. If proper diet is neglected, cows become more susceptible to calcium deficiency and are more likely to have fractures or broken bones. Cows can often recover from these injuries, particularly if they are able to still sit up, but most are slaughtered.

Many diseases can cause downer cattle, especially if they go untreated. Cows suffering from mastitis, uterine infections, cancer or chronic pneumonia may soon become downers. Studies show that cancer levels are rising among cattle, and some experts suggest a contributing factor may be recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) which is used to increase milk yield. In the wake of this information, many countries have banned the use of rBGH entirely.

In January 2008, the United States Humane Society released videos showing graphic depictions of the abuse of downer cattle. The videos, taken at a Chino, California slaughterhouse, showed sick and emaciated cows being electrically shocked and sprayed with high-power jets of water by employees. Moreover, the video raised serious concerns that sick cattle were being used for human consumption. Current US government regulation permits the use of downer meat only if the animal has been inspected by a veterinarian to ensure that the problem is caused by broken bones rather than illness. Despite attempts by congressmen, animal rights groups, and meat industry officials to change the regulations and ban meat from any downed cow, the USDA continues to maintain its original policy.

The fear of meat from infected downer cattle lies primarily in the possible transmission of cattle diseases to humans through meat consumption. Mad cow Disease, the common name for Bovine spongiform encephalitis, is a fatal illness that causes the degeneration of the brain and spinal cord. Studies suggest that the illness is contractible by humans who consume diseased meat. As of 2008, there have been around 200 confirmed cases of human infection worldwide.

Ensuring proper living conditions, diet and prompt medical care for any ill cow is essential to keeping them healthy. Milk fever, a low-calcium syndrome, is believed to be responsible for nearly 40% of all downer cattle. Some studies have shown that of those cows treated within six hours of the onset of milk fever symptoms, only 2% became permanent downer cattle. Many experts believe that the best way to avoid downer cattle is proper preventative care and precaution.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly are downer cattle?

Downer cattle are livestock, specifically cows, that are unable to stand or walk on their own due to illness, injury, or exhaustion. This condition can be caused by a variety of factors, including metabolic disorders like milk fever, musculoskeletal injuries, or diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The term 'downer' reflects their incapacitated state.

Why is the condition of downer cattle a concern in the agriculture industry?

The condition of downer cattle is a significant concern because it not only reflects animal welfare issues but also poses risks to food safety and public health. Downer cows are more susceptible to contamination during slaughter, which can lead to foodborne illnesses. Moreover, their inability to move can be indicative of serious diseases that may have broader implications for herd health.

How are downer cattle typically treated or managed on farms?

On farms, downer cattle are managed with a focus on veterinary care and humane treatment. They are often separated from the herd to prevent further injury and provided with comfortable bedding. Veterinarians assess their condition to determine the cause and appropriate treatment, which may include fluid therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, or other supportive care to aid recovery.

What are the ethical considerations regarding the handling of downer cattle?

Ethical considerations for handling downer cattle revolve around ensuring their welfare and preventing unnecessary suffering. This includes providing prompt and appropriate medical attention, humane euthanasia if recovery is not possible, and avoiding any inhumane treatment such as dragging or forceful movement. Ethical farming practices demand respect for the animals' well-being throughout their lives.

Can downer cattle recover, and if so, how often do they return to the herd?

Recovery for downer cattle depends on the underlying cause of their condition. With timely and effective treatment, some downer cows can recover and return to the herd. However, the prognosis varies widely, and in cases of severe injury or untreatable conditions, recovery may not be possible. According to the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, the recovery rates can be low, and decisions should prioritize the cow's welfare.

What regulations are in place to protect downer cattle and ensure food safety?

Regulations to protect downer cattle and ensure food safety are enforced by various governmental agencies. In the United States, the USDA prohibits the slaughter of downer cattle for human consumption due to the risk of BSE and other diseases. Additionally, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act mandates humane handling and slaughter of all livestock, including downer cattle, to minimize suffering.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for AllThingsNature. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

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Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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