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Diagnosing and Treating Down Cows

Down cows, cows who are unable to rise, are one of the most frustrating emergencies facing cattle veterinarians. While occasionally cows are down by readily treatable conditions, often the prognosis is poor and treatment unrewarding. It is important to identify the cause of an animal being down to assess the value of treatment, quality of life and prognosis for survival. There is seasonal variation in the common causes for non-ambulatory cattle, but these are the most common in our area:

Tick-borne disease, including Anaplasmosis and Theileria, can be a common cause of non-ambulatory cattle from late summer into winter. These cattle are anemic or jaundiced, which means their mucus membranes (most easily assessed at the vulva) are pale or yellow. Once an animal is down with this disease, prognosis for recovery is poor. Treatment can be attempted with appropriate antibiotics, supportive care including B vitamins, and in certain individuals, blood transfusions. It is also important to assess the extent of the disease in the herd to prevent additional animals from going down.

Physical trauma can also cause cows to go down. Spinal trauma, most commonly a result of riding injury, causes weakness primarily in the hind quarters. Calving trauma can similarly result in pressure on the nerves controlling the rear limbs, resulting in the inability to rise. Broken limbs or severe joint dislocations are less common types of trauma in mature cattle. Cattle who are down due to physical trauma are often bright with a normal appetite, helping to distinguish them from other disease processes. Some cattle will recover with rest and treatment with steroids or anti-inflammatories.

Non-traumatic spinal conditions also occur in cattle. Lymphoma, a common type of cancer in cattle caused by the bovine leukosis virus, often affects the spinal column. These cattle have poor tail tone and often will continue to eat. Additional tumors may be palpable externally or per rectum. Less commonly, abscesses can occur in the spine causing similar symptoms. Euthanasia is recommended in these cattle to prevent additional suffering.

Mineral deficiencies, including calcium (milk fever), magnesium (grass tetany), and phosphorus (creeper cows), are the most treatable cause of down cattle. We see these issues most commonly post-calving, especially in the late winter and early spring. Treatment with minerals can result in a full recovery when there are no complicating concurrent conditions.

During the winter months, especially when hay quality is poor, we occasionally see emaciated animals that become too weak to stand. This condition is called protein-energy malnutrition and is difficult to recover from once down. Focus should be on improving nutrition and making other management changes, such as reducing cattle numbers or early weaning, to prevent additional animals from reaching that condition.

Less common causes of down cattle include rabies (animals are often seen straining and hypervocalizing) and various toxicities, including acorns and nitrates. Septicemia (severe infection that has reached the bloodstream) can also cause animals to go down.

All down animals should have hay and water provided within reach and protected from other cattle. They need shade in the summer and wind protection in the winter. For treatable conditions, prognosis is best if treated promptly. Secondary issues, especially muscle and nerve damage, can quickly become irreversible. If the condition is not treatable, the animal should be humanely euthanized to minimize suffering while in a non-ambulatory state.

Some conditions that cause animals to go down, especially anaplasmosis, grass tetany, septicemia and rabies, can make animals aggressive. Use caution when approaching these individuals and have an escape route in mind in case they rise unexpectedly.

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