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Downer Cows


A ‘downer cow’ is referred to as any pre-calving cow that is sitting or lying on the ground and is unable to rise. The condition mainly affects high yielding dairy cows from 2 days pre-calving to 10 days post calving. There are many causes of ‘downer cows’ and they can be one of the most frustrating conditions for both farmers and veterinarians.


Below are some of the primary major causes of the ‘downer cow’ syndrome:

  1. Metabolic disease - hypocalcaemia (low Calcium aka Milk Fever), hypokalaemia (low Potassium), fat cow syndrome (Ketosis), hypophosphatameia (low Phosphorus) and possibly hypomagnesaemia (low Magnesium aka Grass Staggers).

  2. Sick Cows - toxic mastitis, acute metritis, acute gut infection.

  3. Nervous disorders - most often nerve damage e.g. calving paralysis.

  4. Gut diseases - Bloat, rumen acidosis, twisted guts.

  5. Musculo-skeletal conditions - Breaks, dislocations, and muscle/tendon ruptures.

  6. Generalised weakness - Thin cows, or pure exhaustion.

  7. Previous illness - such as Facial Eczema


When a cow goes down, after as little as 3-6 hours muscle and nerve damage in the leg that the animal is lying on can become the main reason the animal is unable to rise, regardless of why she went down in the first place.


Cows that are down, but sitting up and are alert have a good prognosis if treatment is started early. Cows that are depressed have a bad prognosis. Cows that are lifted for a short period of time and are trying to stand have a good prognosis.


The principles of treatment for good prognosis cows include the following:

  1. Treat the primary cause

  2. Minimise the effects of ‘downer cow syndrome’ until animal is able to rise unassisted

  3. Lift the cow using hip lifters or a sling if needed


Initially, a metabolic bag ideally containing Ca, P, Mg and P should be given SLOWLY and IN THE VEIN. Bags given under the skin are both slow to absorb, and will not completely absorb. Calprophos or Glucalmax is a good first choice. Please  do NOT give any treatments to a downer cow with a prolpase as we want her on the ground for treatment of this first. All IV  treatments should be followed by an oral dose (Starter Drench or Calol) or in a pinch, a bag under the skin. Next the animal should ideally be moved to a surface where she can get good footing i.e. off concrete of slippery yards.  The animal should be encouraged to rise. If she does not rise she will need supportive care. This includes the following:

  1. Lifting of the cow with hip clamps (5 minutes max 2-3 times a day in animals that can nearly stand) or slings. Cows should never be left unattended in hip clamps.

  2. Clean, dry, warm and soft bedding if cow is placed in a shed due to bad weather.

  3. Clean fresh drinking water available and extra food such as silage, meal or hay.

  4. Regular turning every 3-6 hours to change which leg the cow is lying on.

  5. Regular stripping or milking out

  6. Encouragement to rise

  7. Pain Relief i.e. Tolfedine


If the animal is still down after 4 days, a re-assessment should be made of whether it is worth continuing treatment. However, some animals with careful care have taken a week to recover.


Any animals that do not get up after being given a metabolic bag containing calcium should ideally be seen by one of our vets. Its also recommended that cows be checked regularly for any calving problems or post-calving infections or mastitis.


If you have any queries contact the clinic.

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