Nursing Down Cows
June 2024

A cow is classified as a “down cow” if they haven’t responded as expected to treatment or are down for more than two hours after treatment. Providing the correct care quickly can reduce complications such nerve or muscle damage, hip dislocations, mastitis, and pneumonia.

When you discover a down cow, it is important to assess her quickly – is she looking depressed or even non-responsive? Take this as a sign that she needs be urgently treated. If she is responsive, aware of her surroundings and bright, her treatment is still a high priority, but not as urgent as an unresponsive cow.

Assessing why she is down is the next step. Metabolic imbalance? Injury? Other illness? Knowing her diagnosis/prognosis will help with deciding the next steps - either treatment and nursing, or euthanasia.

When treating a down cow it is crucial to begin this process as soon as possible. Give her any treatments she may require and set her up to be as comfortable as she can. Move her to a nursing area with soft bedding where possible. Evaluate her surroundings and eliminate any risk factors that make her recovery harder or slower. Moving her is top priority if she is in a dangerous place such as close to a drain, electric fence or even if she is on a walkway as that may make her a risk to the rest of the herd. If she is down on gravel or concrete this can increase risk of more damage even if she’s only there for an hour or two. Good shelter for the down cow is required in extremely cold, wet or hot conditions.

While moving her is important, you also need to be careful not to cause any more damage and reduce her chances of recovery. Safe options include using a carry-all on the back of a tractor (safely secured), a sling, and a front-end loader bucket on the front of a tractor. Hip clamps may be used to move her short distances, but she MUST also be supported with a strap or belt.

Nursing areas need to have soft, clean and dry bedding to help reduce the load on their muscles. Having a non-slip surface will help her when she tries to stand. This, alongside a continuous supply of clean water and good feed is important.

Once she is in a suitable area note which leg the cow is sitting on each time she is checked. The circulation in the leg she is laying against may become compromised if she is unable to swap sides herself.  To prevent this, roll her to the opposite side every 3 hours. Flexing her hind legs out at the same time can help minimize nerve damage. Regular hand stripping and encouragement to get up is also very important. Lifting devices must only be used to get the cow on to her feet – she must not be left hanging in the hip lifter or sling.

Cows with serious illness or injuries have a lower chance of recovery. If treatment is not a viable option, the down cow must be euthanized as soon as possible. Down cows must not be left to suffer. Call your vet for further advice.