Care of the down cow
Down cows are a very common problem on farm during calving season. Most of them are simple cases of milk fever that get up quickly in response to calcium treatments.
However, there are many other problems that can stop cows from standing up, and a range of new problems that develop in cows that are unable to stand.
Common conditions include calving paralysis, broken bones, dislocations, muscle damage, nerve damage, and severe infections. There are many other less common problems as well. Every down cow needs to be assessed and a reason found for why she can’t stand so that appropriate care can be provided. If you cannot find a reason, then you should immediately get veterinary assistance.
Assessment of the down cow should cover a few key areas: milk fever symptoms, attitude/appetite, signs of infection, and leg function. Cows with milk fever will have symptoms like bloat, a cold dry nose, muscle weakness (seen as an ‘S’ shaped bend to the neck and being unable to stand), and dry faeces. Down cows that are alert and keen to eat generally have a better outlook, while depression and lack of interest in food indicate a severe underlying problem. Severe infections will affect alertness and appetite but will also cause other signs like dehydration (look for sunken eyes or a dry nose), fever, smelly discharge from the back end, or a swollen hard discoloured quarter. Leg function is often best assessed when lifting cows, but wounds or a strange angle to one leg may be seen while the cow is lying down. Down cows are often (metaphorical) moving targets as their condition can change from day to day, so they must be regularly assessed for new problems that would reduce their chance of recovery.
Once the cow has been assessed then care and treatment can be provided. For some conditions simple treatments can get the cow standing again (e.g. calcium for milk fever) but if a condition with a hopeless outlook (e.g. broken leg) is diagnosed then the most humane option is euthanasia of the cow. If the cow does not get up within four hours of initial treatment, then you will need to start providing nursing care to prevent new problems developing. Cows are very heavy animals, so lying down puts pressure on the muscles and nerves, rapidly causing additional damage that may prevent the cow from standing even if the original problem resolves. If you are unable to provide good nursing care, then the cow’s chance of recovery is very poor, and she should be euthanised.
Down cows need to be nursed in an area that is sheltered with readily available feed and water, soft bedding, and a non-slippery surface to cushion their legs and prevent further injury when attempting to stand. Cows could be sheltered by being put into a building or creating a wall of bales around the cow - this also prevents the cow from crawling around too much. Crawling should be avoided as cows over-extend their back and cause damage to the nerves supplying the back legs. Often cows need to be moved to a suitable nursing area. This should NOT be done with hip clamps alone, even over a very small distance. Suitable alternatives include using a breast strap with hip lifters or securing the cow in the bucket of a front-end loader.
Down cows should be regularly lifted and rolled onto a different side a minimum of three times a day to ease the pressure from the lower leg. They should spend each night lying on a different leg to the previous night, so roll them an odd number of times each day. Hip lifters can be a very useful tool but must be used correctly. Apply firmly but do not overtighten, do not lift the back feet off the ground, and use them with a breast strap if you can. They are an aid to help the cow stand but if the cow is left to hang in hip lifters then they will do more harm than good so do not leave cows unattended in hip lifters. Lifting a cow is also a perfect time to assess her leg function, so look at whether she can hold her legs at a normal angle and whether she is able to move all her legs.
If you would like any advice on care of down cows, then please contact your vet.