Downer cows are cows which appear to be unable to rise, typically due to injury or disease. The prognosis for a downer cow varies; some can be treated, regaining full health and going on to live healthy, active lives. Others, however, are unable to move because they are at the end stages of a serious disease, or because they have been catastrophically injured, and humane slaughter is the best option. Downer cows have been a problem throughout the history of bovine domestication, but they began to attract widespread interest in the 1990s, due to concerns about bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE), a disease which can cause health problems in humans.
In 2008, a video expose published by the American Humane Society pushed downer cows into the eyes of the public. The video depicted abuse of dairy cows in an attempt to get them to walk to slaughter, as American laws restrict the uses for meat from downer cows, out of concerns about the food supply. If a cow cannot stand up or walk, American laws prohibit slaughtering it for food, which means that the value of the cow is dramatically decreased. As a result, many slaughterhouses which handle such cows try to get them to stand up so that the meat can be sold at a higher value.
One of the most common reasons for a cow to become a downer is a condition called hypocalcemia, characterized by not getting enough calcium. In these cases, the downer cow can make a spectacular recovery after being given an injection of calcium. Some cows become downers after birthing calves, in which case the condition may be related to complications from the pregnancy, which could potentially be treated. In other cases, the cow has become injured, classically through breaking a leg, or it may have a more serious or untraceable illness from which it cannot recover.
For dairy farmers, downer cows are extremely frustrating. Once a cow becomes a downer, it will not produce milk, and it cannot be sold for food, as is typically done with dairy cows which have been “used up,” in industry parlance, unable to produce more milk because their bodies are worn out. Many dairy farmers will attempt to treat a downer cow for several days, if possible, getting the cow well enough to walk to slaughter or to continue working for the dairy. If the cow cannot be coaxed into rising, there is little profit in the slaughter, as the meat must be simply thrown away.
Many countries have animal welfare laws which apply to downer cows. These laws dictate that the cows cannot be abused to force them to stand up, and they may not be dragged to slaughter, and they are ideally enforced by agricultural inspectors, who are also supposed to ensure that such cows do not enter the food supply. However, these laws can be difficult to enforce, as these agencies often do not have enough inspectors to keep tabs on all of a nation's dairy farms.