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What are Downer Cows?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a 'downer cow'?

A 'downer cow' refers to a dairy or beef cow that is unable to stand or walk due to illness, injury, or exhaustion. This condition can be caused by a variety of factors, including metabolic disorders like milk fever, infections, injuries sustained during calving, or muscle fatigue. Immediate veterinary care is crucial to address the underlying issues.

How common are downer cows in the livestock industry?

Downer cows are relatively uncommon, with incidents varying by farm and management practices. According to the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, the incidence rate can be less than 1% of the cattle population on well-managed farms. However, larger operations or those with less optimal conditions may experience higher rates of downed animals.

What are the main causes of cows becoming downers?

The main causes of cows becoming downers include metabolic disorders like milk fever or ketosis, traumatic injuries often related to calving, infectious diseases such as mastitis or pneumonia, and severe exhaustion. Nutritional imbalances and poor management practices can also contribute to the likelihood of cows becoming downers.

Is there a standard protocol for treating downer cows?

Yes, there is a standard protocol for treating downer cows, which involves promptly assessing the animal's condition, providing supportive care, and addressing the specific cause. Treatment may include fluid therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, and nutritional support. Veterinarians may also use lifting devices to help cows regain their mobility, but humane euthanasia is considered if recovery is unlikely.

What are the welfare concerns associated with downer cows?

Welfare concerns for downer cows are significant, as these animals are at risk of dehydration, pressure sores, and inability to access food or water. They can also suffer from stress and pain associated with their condition. Ensuring proper care, minimizing stress, and making timely decisions about euthanasia are critical for their welfare.

Can downer cows recover, and if so, what is the prognosis?

Downer cows can recover with appropriate treatment and care, especially if the underlying cause is promptly addressed. The prognosis depends on the cause and severity of the condition. For example, cows with milk fever may recover quickly with proper treatment, while those with severe injuries may have a poorer prognosis. Early intervention improves the chances of recovery.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By wildrose — On Feb 22, 2013

@anon317755: Get the vet to check for nerve damage. That's most likely why she has gone down, and is the most likeliest reason, especially since you said she delivered a large calf.

@anon173946: Same as above. Most likely a nerve has been pinched in her pelvic region causing her to go down and not be able to get her back legs function properly. Milk fever is definitely not a cause, since it occurs after calving, not two to three months before. See a vet about this, and try to get her up and switch her positions so she doesn't get sores. Your vet should be able to let you know about this.

@anon59444: I think it might be the latter, she could have cracked or fractured her pelvis or back legs enough that she can't get back up again. If this is the case, it's most likely that you may need to put her down. A vet will be able to diagnose this for you, though.

@anon31094: If that calf was low on calcium he would show it in the way he stands and walks. He'd have what is called rickets, which is a condition that affects the bones and the legs to be abnormally bowed out. But definitely not milk fever! Milk fever applies only to post-partum cows that are high milk producers, like dairy cows. You will never find this condition in newborn calves.

I need more information on this calf though. Age? Breed? Condition? Could be that he just needs to be dewormed because he's so filled up with worms he has no energy left. It could also be due to improper nutrition.

Talk to your vet, get a blood and fecal sample, and any other thing that is needed to see what can be done to set this calf right again.

By wildrose — On Feb 22, 2013

Milk fever is not the only thing responsible for causing a cow to go down, even in a dairy herd. Ketosis, serious mastitis infections that no longer are localized, lameness or leg injuries, grass tetany, bloat, winter tetany, BSE, nerve damage associated with late pregnancy or birthing, severe malnutrition (inadequate protein or salt), and several other things are all causes for a cow to go down, beef or dairy. Milk fever is "the most common" because it primarily refers to dairy cows, but not so much with beef cows.

Also, disease and injury aren't the only reasons. Poor nutrition for a prolonged period can cause a cow to go down and not get back up.

By anon317755 — On Feb 04, 2013

Our cow can't stand after giving birth to a large calf. She has been down three days now and is still the same. We have to get the vet to put her to sleep which we didn't want to do. Would any one know what to do, please?

By anon173946 — On May 09, 2011

My cow, nearly seven months pregnant, is not able to stand. She takes food and water by just lying in the same position. We even tried calcium but no result. if anyone knows a solution, please help me.

By anon59444 — On Jan 08, 2010

my cow was fine in night but in the morning i found that she was not able to stand up. she was trying to stand up but her back legs were not supporting her in standing up.

i think it might be a cold effect or it may be that she slipped on floor and became injured.

if anybody knows about it then please let me know.

By anon31094 — On Apr 29, 2009

I have a calf that I think may have this condition. Two days ago he was fine and then last night he was down and couldn't get up. He was trying to get up but just couldn't get his front legs under him to work. I physically lifted him up and tried to get him to walk and he just went limp. Do you think he could be low on calcium? He is a bottle baby if that helps out any?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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