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Editorial Information

Richard Laven PhD BVetMed MRCVS

Published 2000

Downer Cow

This bulletin was written between 2000-2006 and is currently being updated, you should be aware that some of the details may have changed since publishing

The NADIS data show that the number of cases of calving paralysis and downer cows is much higher than average this year. This means that there has been a significant  increase in the cost of damage associated with calving

What is a Downer cow

The downer cow is not very well defined. It is simply a cow that on examination ought to rise but doesn't. There are many causes of a downer cow, including:

1) Trauma at or after calving: Bone fracture or nerve paralysis

2) Metabolic: Milk fever or hypomag

3) Toxic disease: Metritis or mastitis

A cow becomes a downer cow when the initial cause resolves but the cow still doesn't rise. This  failure to rise is usually observed  within 24 hours of the cow going off her feet, as a result of muscle and nerve damage. This damage occurs because a cow  going off its feet results in heavy pressure on  its muscles and nerves, this is made worse in many diseases by the cow being unable to shift position to prevent continuous bearing of weight.

Clinical Signs

  • Recently calved cow (usually less than 48 hours)
  • Unable to rise for no apparent reason
  • Lie in sternal recumbency (on the breast bone)
  • Alert, will often eat and drink and pass urine and faeces
  • Most make no effort to rise, but some move around on forelimbs (creeper cows)


  • On the clinical signs described above
  • The downer cow is a diagnosis of exclusion, so a veterinary examination is essential to rule out broken bones, nerve paralysis, unusual milk fevers, metritis etc.
  • Blood tests can be very useful in assessing the prognosis, as can the presence of reflexes



  • Move to a well bedded yard or loose-box if housed
  • Good nursing care is the key to success, e.g. providing food and water in easy to reach wide-based containers
  • Mechanically raising the cow, followed by hobbling, can help in many cases
  • Observe closely for toxic mastitis, as this is very common, even in cows which did not have mastitis originally
  • Give calcium, phosphorus and magnesium as necessary
  • Local disinfection and treatment are necessary in more severe cases



1) In 46% of downer cows the primary problem was a difficult calving. So good management at calving is vital. Good calving management is dependent upon a vast number of factors, but probably the four most important are:

a) Provide a good environment: Clean, dry, low stocking density

b) Ensure the cows are between  BCS 2 and 3.5 at calving

c) Observe from a distance, don't interfere too readily

d) Know when to get help and assistance


2) 38 percent of downer cows had milk fever  as the primary cause.  Preventing milk fever will significantly reduce the number of downer cows

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