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Downer Cows Information

A Farm guide to the What, Why, Who and How.

by Fleur Lara Viskovich

What is A Downer cow?

A “Downer cow” is a cow that is laying down for more than 24hrs and cannot get up.

If the cow has been down for more than 48hrs the prognosis is very poor.

Why? What are the causes?

Causes can be:

  • Metabolic (38% cases are due to low Calcium)
  • Traumatic (25% cases are due to nerve damage)
  • Toxaemic (2ndry to mastitis, retained placenta)
  • Spinal cause
  • Genetic (Swiss Browns with weaver syndrome)

High-yielding dairy cows are susceptible to:

  • Milk fever (hypocalcaemia)
  • Downer cow syndrome
  • Peripartum ketosis
  • Left displacement of the abomasum (LDA)
  • Retained placenta

These diseases are interrelated and may partly originate from a fatty liver developed during the non-lactating stage. The association of milk fever with ketosis, and downer cows with ketosis is high.

Who - Types of cows and breeds susceptible


  • Less likely to be hypocalcaemia (VitD receptors reduce with age)
  • More likely to be Ketosis, another metabolic cause (Phosphorus / Magnesium / Potassium) or LDA.

If the cow is Pregnant

  • More likely to be hypocalcaemia
  • Could be another metabolic cause or combination.
  • If late stage gestation is likely to be low Phosphorus (foetus uses 10g/day) – these cows are otherwise alert and willing to eat.
  • Onset of lactation will also lower phosphorus levels.

Those cows with lower phosphorus levels typically degenerate to lateral recumbency with mucoid faeces and don’t respond as well to calcium borogluconate treatment. They have a poorer prognosis.

Recently calved

  • Most likely to be hypocalcaemia.
  • Likely to be complicated by Ketosis, as there is a high level of association between Hypocalcaemia & Ketosis3.
  • Mid lactation is the highest risk period for HypoCa.
  • Which parity is it for this cow? Clinical ketosis increases with parity, with its peak incidence at lactation 5-62.
  • Older cows are more susceptible to hypocalcaemia.
  • May be combination of other metabolic imbalances (low Magnesium, low Phosphorus).

Dry cow

  • Low magnesium more likely, particularly if cereal &/or grass diet4. 
  • Monitor feeding rate to avoid fatty liver & later gestational problems.
  • Fatty Liver - Overfeeding during the non-lactating stage followed by reduced feed intake and stress near parturition, accelerate the release of bodily fats and their uptake by the liver. This infiltration of the liver reduces its function and contributes to downer cow syndrome3.


  • Jersey cows are more susceptible to hypocalcaemia & thus “go down” more frequently than Holstein Friesians due to a lower number of intestinal receptors for VitD which regulate dietary calcium absorption.
  • Swiss Browns have a genetic disorder called “Weaver Syndrome” or Bovine Progressive Degenerative Myelopathy (BPDME) that causes hindlimb paralysis and “downers”. The disorder usually becomes evident before the age of 2yrs.

How to prevent it?

  • Prevention lies in management, and realistically “Downers” will always occur, but keeping the incidence less than 2% is ideal4.
  • A potassium rich diet (Legumes) increases the risk of hypocalcaemia.
  • An acidic diet (silage) reduces the risk of milk fever / hypocalcaemia by up to 40%, as the acidity makes a larger proportion of ingested calcium available.
  • Increase the fibre length of the ration.
  • Feed an appropriately pH balanced diet.
  • Ironically a diet with too high a calcium content can also induce milk fever!

What you can do?

  • Nursing care – roll the cow several times a day to alternate sides to avoid muscle damage / compartment syndrome. Often cows will remain down due to secondary muscle damage and pressure on nerves and vessels1,2.
  • Inflatable bags to elevate hindquarters can be used.
  • Soft substrate / good footing to aid if cow will stand.
  • Hip clamps can be used to elevate the cow, reduce dependant swelling and provide preliminary support as the cow regains the ability to stand. Hip clamps must be used carefully so as not to cause further injury.
  • Give oral glucose or Propylene Glycol to fix an energy imbalance.
  • Give oral calcium (Calcium chloride or Calcium proprionate)
  • Call your veterinarian!

What is the Vet likely to do?

  • Rectal exam - determine pelvic involvement or fracture, Coxofemoral dislocation, determine the position and relative size of the rumen and uterus (bloat / torsion / displacement), determine if the calf is stuck and pressing on nerves etc.
  • Vaginal exam – determine if there is a retained foetus / retained membranes, the nature of any discharge / manipulate the calf’s position etc…
  • Test particular nerves, joints and bones for function / determine their involvement.
  • Assess temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, pulse quality and mucous membranes.
  • Administer Calcium Borogluconate (CBG) intravenously.
  • Administer Magnesium, Glucose, Phosphorus and Potassium intravenously.
  • Take blood or urine samples for testing.
  • Give you an idea of the cow’s prognosis based on the results of these procedures.

How hypocalcaemia progresses4

Stage 1

  • Standing, +/- straightened hocks, incoordination, brief excitement / hypersensitivity.
  • Teeth grinding, slight tremor of head & limbs.
  • Loss of appetite, dull, lethargic.
  • Temperature normal.

Stage 2

  • Sternal recumbency (down on chest).
  • Head to flank, depressed consciousness, +/- dilated pupils.
  • Dry muzzle, rumenal stasis, constipation.
  • Tachycardia, cardiac output decreased 60%, weak pulse, cool skin & extremities (environ dependant).
  • Calcium affects the contractility of the uterus, so hypocalcaemia can also cause difficult birth and uterine prolapse.

Stage 3

  • Lateral recumbency (down on side)
  • Flaccid, drowsy/comatose, unable to rise,
  • Loss of anal reflex – mucoid faeces, rumenal tympany.
  • Slow shallow respiration pattern +/- expiratory grunt.
  • Low body temperature.
  • Heart difficult to hearà death.

Laven R “NADIS Disease focus: the Downer Cow” c/o National Animal Disease information Service, 2003. viewed 18/01/07

Aiello SE (Ed) Merck veterinary Manual, Whitehouse Lane NJ, Merck & Co. 1998

3 Oikawa S, Katoh N. “Decreases in serum apolipoprotein B-100 and A-I concentrations in cows with milk fever and downer cows” in Can J Vet Res. 2002 January; 66(1): 31–34. Viewed 20/01/07