What are Downer Cows?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 08 October 2019
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Downer cows are cows which appear to be unable to rise, typically due to injury or disease. The prognosis for a downer cow varies; some can be treated, regaining full health and going on to live healthy, active lives. Others, however, are unable to move because they are at the end stages of a serious disease, or because they have been catastrophically injured, and humane slaughter is the best option. Downer cows have been a problem throughout the history of bovine domestication, but they began to attract widespread interest in the 1990s, due to concerns about bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE), a disease which can cause health problems in humans.

In 2008, a video expose published by the American Humane Society pushed downer cows into the eyes of the public. The video depicted abuse of dairy cows in an attempt to get them to walk to slaughter, as American laws restrict the uses for meat from downer cows, out of concerns about the food supply. If a cow cannot stand up or walk, American laws prohibit slaughtering it for food, which means that the value of the cow is dramatically decreased. As a result, many slaughterhouses which handle such cows try to get them to stand up so that the meat can be sold at a higher value.


One of the most common reasons for a cow to become a downer is a condition called hypocalcemia, characterized by not getting enough calcium. In these cases, the downer cow can make a spectacular recovery after being given an injection of calcium. Some cows become downers after birthing calves, in which case the condition may be related to complications from the pregnancy, which could potentially be treated. In other cases, the cow has become injured, classically through breaking a leg, or it may have a more serious or untraceable illness from which it cannot recover.

For dairy farmers, downer cows are extremely frustrating. Once a cow becomes a downer, it will not produce milk, and it cannot be sold for food, as is typically done with dairy cows which have been “used up,” in industry parlance, unable to produce more milk because their bodies are worn out. Many dairy farmers will attempt to treat a downer cow for several days, if possible, getting the cow well enough to walk to slaughter or to continue working for the dairy. If the cow cannot be coaxed into rising, there is little profit in the slaughter, as the meat must be simply thrown away.

Many countries have animal welfare laws which apply to downer cows. These laws dictate that the cows cannot be abused to force them to stand up, and they may not be dragged to slaughter, and they are ideally enforced by agricultural inspectors, who are also supposed to ensure that such cows do not enter the food supply. However, these laws can be difficult to enforce, as these agencies often do not have enough inspectors to keep tabs on all of a nation's dairy farms.


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Post 8

@anon317755: Get the vet to check for nerve damage. That's most likely why she has gone down, and is the most likeliest reason, especially since you said she delivered a large calf.

@anon173946: Same as above. Most likely a nerve has been pinched in her pelvic region causing her to go down and not be able to get her back legs function properly. Milk fever is definitely not a cause, since it occurs after calving, not two to three months before. See a vet about this, and try to get her up and switch her positions so she doesn't get sores. Your vet should be able to let you know about this.

@anon59444: I think it might be the latter

, she could have cracked or fractured her pelvis or back legs enough that she can't get back up again. If this is the case, it's most likely that you may need to put her down. A vet will be able to diagnose this for you, though.

@anon31094: If that calf was low on calcium he would show it in the way he stands and walks. He'd have what is called rickets, which is a condition that affects the bones and the legs to be abnormally bowed out. But definitely not milk fever! Milk fever applies only to post-partum cows that are high milk producers, like dairy cows. You will never find this condition in newborn calves.

I need more information on this calf though. Age? Breed? Condition? Could be that he just needs to be dewormed because he's so filled up with worms he has no energy left. It could also be due to improper nutrition.

Talk to your vet, get a blood and fecal sample, and any other thing that is needed to see what can be done to set this calf right again.

Post 7

Milk fever is not the only thing responsible for causing a cow to go down, even in a dairy herd. Ketosis, serious mastitis infections that no longer are localized, lameness or leg injuries, grass tetany, bloat, winter tetany, BSE, nerve damage associated with late pregnancy or birthing, severe malnutrition (inadequate protein or salt), and several other things are all causes for a cow to go down, beef or dairy. Milk fever is "the most common" because it primarily refers to dairy cows, but not so much with beef cows.

Also, disease and injury aren't the only reasons. Poor nutrition for a prolonged period can cause a cow to go down and not get back up.

Post 5

Our cow can't stand after giving birth to a large calf. She has been down three days now and is still the same. We have to get the vet to put her to sleep which we didn't want to do. Would any one know what to do, please?

Post 3

My cow, nearly seven months pregnant, is not able to stand. She takes food and water by just lying in the same position. We even tried calcium but no result. if anyone knows a solution, please help me.

Post 2

my cow was fine in night but in the morning i found that she was not able to stand up. she was trying to stand up but her back legs were not supporting her in standing up.

i think it might be a cold effect or it may be that she slipped on floor and became injured.

if anybody knows about it then please let me know.

Post 1

I have a calf that I think may have this condition. Two days ago he was fine and then last night he was down and couldn't get up. He was trying to get up but just couldn't get his front legs under him to work. I physically lifted him up and tried to get him to walk and he just went limp. Do you think he could be low on calcium? He is a bottle baby if that helps out any?

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