Dealing With Down Cows

Emily Sycamore explains the best way to deal with down cows, what the best thing to do in this situation is and the cow’s chances of getting back up again.

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It’s always worrying when a cow goes down, but what exactly is the best thing to do in this situation and what are her chances of getting up again? Emily Sycamore explains.

What Are The Main Causes Of Down Cows?

The main reasons we see for cows going down are post-calving nerve damage, back injuries and milk fever. If these issues can be prevented then the risks of the cow going down in the first place are greatly reduced.

Post-Calving Nerve Damage

Post-calving nerve damage often happens when a cow calves a calf too large for her pelvis, and the nerves around the birth canal become swollen or damaged. Preventing excessive pressure being put on a calf during calving can not only help to minimise this risk, but will also reduce the risk of tearing the cow – remember, a good caesarean is much better for the cow than a bad calving!

Back Injuries

Back injuries (either from bulls or from other cows mounting) often happen during bulling. Providing a good, slip-free surface to all walking and loafing areas for cows is essential to help to prevent this.

Milk Fever

Milk fever incidence can be much reduced through dietary management during the dry and transition period (preferably), and/or by pre-emptive treatment with calcium boluses or injection for high risk cows at calving.

Whatever the reason the cow goes down in the first place, secondary muscle and nerve damage (‘downer cow syndrome’) soon sets in. Recent research has shown that around 84% of down cows end up having some degree of secondary damage, and only 14% of these animals make it back to their feet again. In contrast, 54% of cows with no secondary damage recover.

What To Do When The Cow Goes Down

The quicker the cow is identified as ‘down’ and treatment is commenced, the less chance there is of secondary damage occurring and the better the odds of her recovery. High quality nursing care and good welfare is essential – this involves ensuring that the cow is on a deep, clean, soft bed (preferably straw), has access to food and water (within her reach!), is regularly (i.e. every 4-6 hours) turned from one side to the other, and is only lifted through safe and effective means.

If an animal is down due to injury, on-site casualty slaughter for human consumption may be an option. A vet needs to certify that the animal is fit for human consumption, and the Food Standards Agency specify that the certifying vet must be present at the time of slaughter.

Animals are eligible for on-farm slaughter if they meet certain criteria, for example

  • That they have suffered an accident
  • The ‘accident’ is not a chronic condition
  • They are free from medicine withdrawals
  • They are otherwise fit and well and are showing no evidence of systemic disease
  • Are in a state of reasonable cleanliness
  • That they have two ear tags and a passport.

If an animal does not fit the criteria for a certificate, the vet will be unable to issue one. If an animal has been down for too long, it may well be condemned at the slaughter house due to extensive muscle damage.

Anti-inflammatory drugs can be immensely useful in providing pain relief for the down cow, and will help give her the best possible chance of getting up. Products containing ketoprofen often have a 24-hour meat withdrawal period and it can be a good idea to administer these if you are not sure whether the cow will get up but want to give her a chance – she can still be slaughtered the next day if she doesn’t respond. If you’re not sure of the diagnosis, though, always call the vet – no amount of anti-inflammatory will fix a broken leg or replace a dislocated hip!

If you have any queries about a down cow or on-farm slaughter certificates, please contact us at the practice to have a chat with one of our vets.

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