Veterinary advice: Downer cow needs top class nursing for best recovery chance

A few weeks ago, we were very lucky to have the Australian expert, Dr. Phil Poulton, with us at Prime Health Vets, for a talk on the Downer Cow.

Phil was over in Ireland for the World Buiatrics Congress in Dublin, and our connections ensured that he came down to us for a night to impart his knowledge.

Phil has spent years, with the help of Dairy Australia, carrying out research in the area of the Downer Cow.

According to Phil, the best practice for managing Downer Cows is not to have any of these cows, and preventative measures should be part of any herd health plan.

The cow initially goes down for any number of reasons, and it is important to determine the cause, and treat it correctly.

If the cow is non-alert, then she is critical, and if she is alert, then she is not as critical.

It is important that she be assessed as soon as possible, and quite often, euthanasia is the best option, on humane grounds.

This may be because the animal has a broken leg or some other damage that would have a poor prognosis.

Cows that are down are very likely to cause secondary damage to themselves, and it is this secondary damage that is going to keep them down.

For example, the cow that has milk fever can severely damage the nerves in her back while trying to crawl, ending with the two hind legs back behind her and the spine arched.

Assessment and constant re-assessment of the animal is vital, if she is to have any chance of survival.

Sometimes, secondary damage can occur within hours of going down.

Other damage that can occur includes pressure damage to the hind quarters, dislocated hips, pressure damage to the nerves of the hind quarters or front legs due to lying on hard surfaces, bed sores etc.

Cows that are left out in a field are subject to the elements, which might change overnight.

A cold cow has very poor circulation, and will not heal properly.

Sometimes, lifting is of benefit, but other times, the cow is better off left down, and being turned every few hours.

Cows that are lifted should be watched constantly while they are up.

They should not be left hanging while you go away to do something else.

All cows that are down due to secondary damage need top class nursing, and if you cannot provide this, then the cow might be better off euthanased.

Proper nursing requires a dedicated nursing area that is going to be in a central position, to make monitoring the cow on a regular basis that much easier.

If you have to keep going out to the back of the sheds to check on this cow, then she won’t get seen.

The nursing area needs to have shelter; deep, comfortable bedding; and barriers to prevent wandering or crawling.

The nursing area needs to be ready before the first cow calves.

Plentiful food and water should be provided, and all faeces removed regularly.

This requires plenty of available labour, which is also needed to turn the cow every three hours.

Unfortunately, downer cows present themselves when everything on the farm is at its busiest, and the farmer has to decide if he has the time and resources to nurse the downer cow properly.

Top class nursing gives her the best chance of recovery, and even middling nursing can lead to very poor results.

As Dr. Phil says; “Downer cows can be difficult to deal with, and are often unrewarding to treat”.

The initial assessment has to be correct, and the right call made on what’s going to be done.

Animal welfare is paramount.


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