Diseases - Cattle


Other Names

Prolonged Recumbency


All. Cattle are the main species of interest.


In the live export process, 'downer' is the term applied to animals that cannot stand without assistance.

The diseases and conditions causing most cases of downers in the live export process include:

  • musculoskeletal injuries (including fractures or other severe injuries, footrot or sepsis in multiple feet)
  • toxaemia or septicaemia from overwhelming infection e.g. pneumonia or peritonitis
  • weakness, dehydration and exhaustion associated with a range of conditions such as diarrhoea, rumen acidosis, inappetence, and heat stress.
  • metabolic problems such as hypocalcaemia, hypomagnesaemia or ketosis
  • ephemeral fever

Clinical Signs and Diagnosis

Downers may be detected in lateral or sternal recumbency during pen inspections. Animals affected with localized and recent conditions such as musculoskeletal injuries, may remain bright and alert. Animals affected with chronic or systemic conditions may be depressed.


It is very important to examine the animal to try to determine why it is down. If there is a limb fracture, joint dislocation, ligament rupture or paralysing spinal cord injury, the decision to euthanase may be clear cut. If the animal looks bright, occasionally struggles to rise, and continues to eat and drink, recovery is a possibility and it is worthwhile persevering. However, if the animal becomes deteriorates, loses interest in feed, or develops complications such as decubital lesions, consideration should be given to euthanasing the animal.

Vigorous intervention is required to get recumbent animals standing before compressive musculoskeletal damage becomes irreversible. Specific treatment of downers will be determined by the diagnosis but in general they should receive antibiotics (procaine penicillin, oxytetracycline, ceftiofur, or tylosin), non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (flunixin meglumine, ketoprofen, meloxicam, or tolfenamic acid), calcium borogluconate and magnesium sulphate solutions, together with supportive or nursing care. Try to provide the animal with a pen of its own by either relocating the affected animal or moving pen mates. Roll the animal from side to side every few hours and manipulate limbs where possible to reduce compression damage to limb muscles and nerves.

Try to stand the animal up at least once daily. This can be done by encouraging the animal to stand with one or two people providing assistance at the tail head to lift at the same time as the animal tries to stand. Once the animal stands, one person can accompany the animal to provide lift and stability at the tail head until it appears more stable.

It is best to prepare for maximal effort on the first attempt to stand since animals may only try for one or two attempts. Sourcing an electric goad, wrapping an absorbent paper towel around the tail to provide a better grip, removing pen rails in front of the animal (even if it means cutting them away), spreading sawdust in front of and around the animal, and ensuring two strong people are available to lift the tail are measures that may be the difference between success and failure for the animal.

Once standing, weakened cattle may require application of hobbles to prevent them doing the splits and dislocating a hip joint. Nylon straps around the cannon bones (metatarsi) allowing 0.5m distance between the legs should be used in preference to ropes.

Suspending the animal with ropes, slings or clamps is usually unrewarding unless managed carefully in an optimal environment and with purpose-designed equipment. The prognosis is better for animals crawling or attempting to rise than animals remaining inactive. Strong consideration should be given to euthanasing cattle that are unable to rise and show no improvement within a 24 hour treatment interval.


Measures to prevent traumatic injuries and lameness such as low stress animal handling, non slip decks and hazard free pens and laneways will prevent some downers occurring. A system for early detection, accurate diagnosis and early treatment of health problems is also recommended. At sea it is recommended that all animals be stood up at least once and preferably twice a day, typically at the time of pen inspections. This is best done around feeding time when most animals are usually standing.