Prioritise treatment of down cows for a better outcome

Prioritise treatment of down cows for a better outcome

27 July 2017

Rapid treatment after a down cow has been correctly diagnosed, followed by nursing at a high standard, maximises the cow’s chance of recovery.

If the cow is not helped to get back on her feet quickly and given good, consistent care, secondary damage to muscles and nerves in the leg she is lying on can occur quickly (within three to six hours). This damage becomes the reason she is unable to rise, regardless of the original cause of her going down.


Careful mineral supplementation, good springer management, and accurate body condition scoring can all help prevent cows from going down. See the DairyNZ website for more information on body condition scoring


There are many causes of down cows, including calving paralysis, metabolic disease, other infections, gut diseases, injury and previous illnesses.

Decision on treatment

DairyNZ Animal Husbandry Specialist, Anna Irwin, says one of the crucial early decisions is whether to persist with treatment or humanely euthanase the cow. “If a down cow cannot be nursed with a high standard of care it is better for the cow’s welfare that she is euthanased within a short time as her chances of recovery will be low.”

If a down cow is drowsy, depressed and non-responsive, an immediate diagnosis should be made to determine whether treatment is an option. If she is still alert, treatment should begin as quickly as possible. In some cases, a cow may recover on the same day. If it’s looking like it will take longer, she should be moved to a dedicated nursing area.

If the cow cannot stand on her own within 48 hours of going down, you should seek veterinary advice.

Treatment management plan

Down cows should be a priority no matter what else is happening on-farm. The management of all down cows should include:

  • Checking the cow’s environment for risks
  • Making an accurate diagnosis immediately – if you are unsure ask a vet
  • Moving her off hard surfaces and out of cold, hot or wet weather
  • Checking her posture – if she is lying on her side, put her up onto her chest and support her
  • Treating the problem appropriately and promptly
  • Getting her back on her feet quickly to avoid secondary damage
  • Considering euthanasia if treatment is not a viable option

Nursing a down cow requires

  • A dedicated area with barriers
  • Clean, dry and soft bedding that will provide a non-slip surface when the cow tries to stand
  • A continuous supply of clean water and good feed
  • Moving the cow from one side to the other every three hours and flexing and extending the hind limbs each time the cow is moved
  • Regularly hand stripping milk from the udder
  • Regularly encouraging the cow to rise
  • Using lifting devices to get her to her feet only – never leave cows hanging in lifting devices

Note which leg the cow is sitting on each time she is checked. If the cow cannot swap sides by herself, she must be rolled frequently onto her other side, especially if she is trying to stand up.

Hip lifters should only be used to assist a cow into a standing position, not to suspend a cow that is unable to stand without the additional support of a breast strap or sling.

It is acceptable to move a cow a short distance using a sling or breast strap, with a correctly applied hip clamp, as long as it doesn’t cause the cow any undue discomfort or distress. If you need to move a cow longer distances, use a transport tray, tandem trailer or front end loader bucket.

Visit to view DairyNZ’s video on the correct use of hip lifters.

If the cow is still down after four days, a re-assessment should be made of whether it is worth continuing treatment. Some cows, with careful care, can take a week to recover.

A detailed plan outlining down cow management on your farm will improve your chances of success. We encourage you to have an established process for making decisions about the diagnosis, treatment and care of down cows, including when to call a vet for assistance.

Article supplied by DairyNZ