If you’ve been in the cattle business long you have probably heard of the downer cow syndrome, or chances are, have had a downer cow of your own. This is a very common presentation and vets frequently get called out to examine cows that, for any number of reasons, are down and cannot get up. There is some irony in this condition as the apparent superficial problem is quiet easy to identify – the cow’s inability to rise. However, identifying the underlying cause for her apparent problem can be challenging and complex, hence the term, downer cow ‘syndrome’.
Part of the challenge with the downer cow is that proper examination can be difficult. Pregnancy status can be determined by rectal palpation, the cow can be thoroughly examined for injury or other disease such as mastitis or metritis and simple bloodwork can determine electrolyte status in the case of suspected milk fever or grass tetany. The age and nutritional status of the cow should be considered as well as her proximity to calving. If the cow had difficulty calving or assistance was provided this could predispose her to certain conditions.
Unfortunately, numerous initial disease conditions can result in a downer cow and at times it is a complex interaction of multiple conditions. Furthermore, once a cow is down she becomes susceptible to a cascade of events that may include muscle damage and subsequent organ damage, hip dislocation or other orthopedic injuries as she struggles to get up, as well as dehydration and further electrolyte imbalance from a lack of access to sufficient water and feed.
Treatment should be based on the diagnosed condition or most likely condition if a definite diagnosis cannot be made. More common conditions include:  injury to a limb or to the back from a fall or from being ridden by the bull or other cows, calving paralysis from a difficult calving, low electrolyte levels such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus or potassium, systemic disease such as cancer, mastitis or anaplasmosis or simply from poor nutritional status that may or may not be coupled with old age. The most important aspect in regards to treatment is to administer it promptly. The longer a cow is down, no matter her condition, the poorer her prognosis, understanding that her condition gets more complex as that cascade of secondary events kicks in. For most cows intravenous supplementation with fluids and electrolytes is recommended and may result in an immediate response. Treatment with anti-inflammatories and antibiotics may also be necessary. For those cows that do not respond quickly, periodic lifting and assistance to stand by use of a sling or ‘hip huggers’ may be required. My experience suggests that if the cow is not up within 2-3 days the prognosis becomes grave.
Ultimately prompt, thoughtful treatment and persistence is paramount to getting the downer cow back on her feet. Proper nutrition and mineral supplementation this winter are a good means for prevention.
Darren Loula, DVM, is owner of Christian County Veterinary Service, LLC, a mobile large animal vet clinic.


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