You've reached the Virginia Cooperative Extension Newsletter Archive. These files cover more than ten years of newsletters posted on our old website (through April/May 2009), and are provided for historical purposes only. As such, they may contain out-of-date references and broken links.

To see our latest newsletters and current information, visit our website at

Newsletter Archive index:

Virginia Cooperative Extension -
 Knowledge for the CommonWealth

Down Cows: Potential Problem for Cattle Producers

Livestock Update, February 2008

Dr. W. Dee Whittier, Extension Veterinarian, Cattle
VA-MD Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, VA Tech

A down cow is a dreaded problem for any cattle producer and almost always has a negative economic impact, sometimes one that is quite severe. Prevention is always the best approach to downers.  However, despite the best plans, the occasional down cow still occurs and the handling of the case determines the level of loss that will occur.

Down cows were in the national headlines after the BSE (mad cow) case a few years ago.  Repeatedly the media defined a down cow as one that “was too sick to stand up”.  While this definition fits some down cows, many of these cows have experienced injuries that prevent them from being able to get up.

Although there is a list of over a hundred causes for down cows, it is sometimes helpful to group the causes of downer cows into the following four categories:

Prevention of Downer Cows

Many cases of downer cows can be prevented.  Once again, there are hundreds of preventive measures associated with the many causes of downer.  However, the categories of causes above suggest major approaches to prevention.

Dealing with Down Cows
Regardless of the primary cause, cattle are badly designed for long periods of lying down, especially on hard surfaces.  Downer cow syndrome has been used to describe the conditions that develop in animals that are unable to stand.  After as little as six hours with the inability to rise, they develop abnormalities of the muscles, nerves and joints.  In one study of dairy cows only about 2% of cows treated for milk fever within six hours became long-term downers.  However, with cows not treated for 7 to 12 hours over 25% became downers and nearly 50% of cows not treated until after 18 hours were unable to rise (Fenwick 1969).

When healthy cattle lie on their chest, most of the foreweight is on the brisket, while the majority of the hindweight rests on the leg under the body.  Normally, cattle reposition themselves and alternate the leg on which weight rests (this often involves at least partial standing and lying back down on the opposite leg).  When cattle are unable to do this, the down leg experiences extreme pressure which may put the nerves in the leg to sleep and influence blood circulation so that muscles are much weaker.

Getting the correct diagnosis of a down is crucial to the success of the treatment.  Determining the cause of a downer is one of the most challenging diagnoses.  Involving a veterinarian in the decision making allows a professional to help with both diagnosis and treatment.  One tool to use is to offer the down cow palatable feed.  Most cows down from starvation will eat ravenously while some cows with injuries will also eat.  Most cows with metabolic problems and disease will not eat.

Since treatment for metabolic disease is relatively cheap so it can be used as a tool to determine the cause of the downer.  If other disease causes are determined, they need to be treated immediately.  In the mean time, attention must be given to the ongoing damage to nerves and muscles.

For many years marketing a down cow that was determined to be otherwise healthy (no signs of systemic disease) was an option.  This ended by regulation soon after diagnosis of the first case of BSE (mad-cow disease).  This leaves putting the cow to sleep, home slaughter and consumption and treatment as options.

Table 1 describes options for treatment commonly used in Virginia along with their requirements, advantages and disadvantages.  Quickly finding down cows and proceeding with treatment will increase the odds of success whatever treatment is used.

Table 1.  Common methods for the treatment of downer cows in Virginia.  From “In Practice” Don Huxley.  28:176-184. (2006)

Down cows occur for many reasons.  Prognosis is never excellent for down cows since this is a serious condition.  Rapid diagnosis and early, appropriate treatment will minimize losses due to downers.



Visit Virginia Cooperative Extension