What are Downer Cattle?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 17 November 2019
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Downer cattle are cows that cannot walk because of injury or disease. Many farming experts recommend the slaughter of downer cattle as a humane response to their condition. Downer cows are considered potential sources of mad cow disease, a fatal illness that experts say may be transmittable to humans who consume infected meat. In 2008, The American Meat Institute, National Meat Association and National Milk Association petitioned the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to institute a governmental ban on selling meat from downed cows for human consumption, but so far no comprehensive ban has been passed.

Injury to a cow may cause it to become a downer or splitter. Frequently, calving problems are the main cause. If a cow has a difficult delivery because of a large calf or badly positioned calf, it can cause “splitting” or the inability to use the hind legs. Downers can also be caused by leg fractures, most often from stepping into a gopher or prairie dog hole. Additionally, difficult journeys to the slaughterhouse can leave cows crippled. If proper diet is neglected, cows become more susceptible to calcium deficiency and are more likely to have fractures or broken bones. Cows can often recover from these injuries, particularly if they are able to still sit up, but most are slaughtered.


Many diseases can cause downer cattle, especially if they go untreated. Cows suffering from mastitis, uterine infections, cancer or chronic pneumonia may soon become downers. Studies show that cancer levels are rising among cattle, and some experts suggest a contributing factor may be recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) which is used to increase milk yield. In the wake of this information, many countries have banned the use of rBGH entirely.

In January 2008, the United States Humane Society released videos showing graphic depictions of the abuse of downer cattle. The videos, taken at a Chino, California slaughterhouse, showed sick and emaciated cows being electrically shocked and sprayed with high-power jets of water by employees. Moreover, the video raised serious concerns that sick cattle were being used for human consumption. Current US government regulation permits the use of downer meat only if the animal has been inspected by a veterinarian to ensure that the problem is caused by broken bones rather than illness. Despite attempts by congressmen, animal rights groups, and meat industry officials to change the regulations and ban meat from any downed cow, the USDA continues to maintain its original policy.

The fear of meat from infected downer cattle lies primarily in the possible transmission of cattle diseases to humans through meat consumption. Mad cow Disease, the common name for Bovine spongiform encephalitis, is a fatal illness that causes the degeneration of the brain and spinal cord. Studies suggest that the illness is contractible by humans who consume diseased meat. As of 2008, there have been around 200 confirmed cases of human infection worldwide.

Ensuring proper living conditions, diet and prompt medical care for any ill cow is essential to keeping them healthy. Milk fever, a low-calcium syndrome, is believed to be responsible for nearly 40% of all downer cattle. Some studies have shown that of those cows treated within six hours of the onset of milk fever symptoms, only 2% became permanent downer cattle. Many experts believe that the best way to avoid downer cattle is proper preventative care and precaution.


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