Animal Health: Management and nursing of down cows

The assessment and prognosis of the downer cow case is difficult. It is important in the first instance to get as good a diagnosis as possible

Cows in a field
Cows in a field

Iain Carrington

The assessment and prognosis of the downer cow case is difficult. It is important in the first instance to get as good a diagnosis as possible, so that the correct treatment can be instituted or slaughter/euthanasia on humane grounds can be preformed.

On-farm slaughter of these cases is now problematical as only a limited number are eligible for human consumption due to the current legislation and availability of abattoirs that will accept them.

Once the cow has been recumbent for some time, downer cow syndrome will occur due to pressure and limitation of circulation, primarily in the underside leg.

This is why turning the cow is of such importance. Careful nursing and treatment in the early stages can help greatly to improve the prognosis. Moving a down cow to a suitable hospital area can be a challenge and care should be taken to ensure that the patient’s condition is not made worse by doing so.

The animal can be moved in a sling or, with care, a digger bucket or pallet forks with an old door across them can be used, padding of sharp edges is sensible.

It is also wise to control the head with a halter to reduce struggling and further injury. The fundamentals of good nursing are:

A clear diagnosis will aid by enabling the correct treatment to be administered.

The provision of a clean, deep, dry, comfortable, warm bed which provides good grip if the patient attempts to stand. These problems rarely occur in places that provide this and it is important to move the animals to a better location as soon as possible. The best place is out at grass if the weather and conditions are suitable and if not, a well-strawed box with good access is essential. Deep sand can be used if available.

The cow should be turned, preferably every three hours, unless she is doing so herself. This helps reduce muscle and nerve damage which leads to downer cow syndrome.

Anti-inflammatory and pain-killing drugs reduce the effects of downer cow syndrome and make the patient feel better. The use of these drugs is essential if immediate euthanasia is not required. The sooner they are used in the progression of the condition, the better the effect. Your vet will be able to advise you.

Physiotherapy and massage help to move the blood in the leg and get more oxygen to the muscle, again reducing damage.

Where possible the animals should be encouraged to stand. The use of hoists, slings and inflatable bags, etc, are very helpful but care should be taken over the length of time they are used to suspend the patient. This varies with the equipment used. If the animal is unable to assist in this process and just hangs, the outlook is poor.

The availability of good-quality food and water at all times is a basic requirement.

In lactating dairy cows it is essential to make arrangements to milk the animal. All down cows should be checked for mastitis regularly.

Cows which have done the splits can be hobbled using proprietary hobbles or a length of thick soft rope to a distance of approximately 20in between the legs.

All this is basically TLC and good sense - treat the initial cause of the recumbency and deal with the consequences with good nursing.

Deciding which cases are suitable for treatment can be difficult but a rule of thumb is that as long as the cow is comfortable, in sternal recumbency and eating and drinking well, it is worth continuing with nursing. If not, the outlook is grim.

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