Animals can lie down and stay down due to a host of reasons. According to Dr Gillian Declercq, community state veterinarian with the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and  Rural Development (GDARD), possible causes include foot problems, metabolic diseases such as milk fever, malnutrition or even nerve damage after a difficult calving.

Diseases such as foot and mouth disease and lumpy skin disease, or bluetongue in the cases of small stock, can affect the corium of the hooves and it may be too painful for the animal to stand. “If it is a foot problem, treat the problem accordingly.” In the case of metabolic diseases, timeous and correct treatment is crucial. If an animal goes down with milk fever, she will typically have her front legs tucked underneath her with her head tucked to the side. These are usually cows that have calved in the last 72 hours, or heavily pregnant sheep or goats.

Nutrition is key

The animal could also have gone down because it is malnourished and too weak to stand.  “Check if the animal is emaciated and looks weak.  If sufficient feed was available, determine why the animal did not eat. “Make sure that it has access to good quality feed. High-quality hay and a small amount of concentrates are ideal.  Long stem roughage is important to keep the rumen going. Often downer animals do not make it because their rumen microflora is neglected.  A dead rumen means a dead ruminant.”

Another possible cause of downer cattle is nerve damage after a difficult birth. “This often happens where the calf had to be forcibly removed.  As the calf is pulled through the birth canal, it causes damage not only to the bones, but also to the nerves of the pelvis and hind limbs. These animals have a typical stance with the back legs stretched out behind them. The front legs work fine, but the hind legs are not responding.”  In these cases, it is best to contact a veterinarian and have the animal fully assessed.

Don’t let them lie

“Cattle are heavy animals and if they lie on one side too long, it tends to cause muscle and nerve damage. Moving them from side to side will restore blood circulation and allow the animal to have a better chance at rising,” explains Dr Declercq. Motivate the animal to stand up while they still can, by prodding them or placing a pole under their hind legs and lifting them.  “Treat them gently and with patience. The use of an electrical prodder is not advocated in these cases, as it causes unnecessary pain and stress.”

An animal that has been lying down for a prolonged period of time will be likely to develop pressure sores. Treat these sores before secondary infection sets in, by using a salt water solution and an antiseptic ointment to aid healing.

An animal that has been down for longer than three days and still refuses to stand, will most likely not rise again. Consider quality of life and the value of the animal when deciding on the length of treatment. – Marike Brits, Stockfarm

For more information, contact your MSD Animal Health representative or phone 011 923 9300. (ZA/ORUM/0218/0003e)

Thank you for the support of several role-players in creating this series: the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr Gillian Declercq and the CCS veterinarians (Dr Lindsay Parvess and Dr Heidi Kuhn), MSD Animal Health, as well as Kenneth Ndlovu and the Amogelang team for their assistance and animals for demonstration.