Vet on Call: Not all downer cows are cases of deadly milk fever

Saturday January 19 2019

Yusuf Toyoyi feeds his dairy cattle in a farm in Soilo, Nakuru County.

Yusuf Toyoyi feeds his dairy cattle in a farm in Soilo, Nakuru County. If downer cows are fed high energy, high protein diet with correct balance of minerals and vitamins early enough in their recumbence, they actually improve their body condition, regain their muscle strength and are able to stand again. PHOTO | JOHN NJOROGE | NMG 

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Last week’s article on milk fever elicited plenty of feedback, with the responses from farmers suggesting that cows going down and failing to wake up is a major problem on dairy farms.

Milk fever is a common cause of cows getting recumbent; meaning unable to stand. If untreated, the animals deteriorate and die.

However, it is not the only cause of downer cows. In fact, the classical downer cow syndrome is a result of animals getting very low energy feeds such as dry grass, dry maize stalks known as maize stover and overgrown napier grass.

This diet causes a long-standing low energy level in the body, leading to the weakening of the muscles and eventually they are unable to carry the animal’s weight. Such animals are in poor body condition. When they go down, they continue eating voraciously but they cannot stand.

If downer cows are fed high energy, high protein diet with correct balance of minerals and vitamins early enough in their recumbence, they actually improve their body condition, regain their muscle strength and are able to stand again.

Majority of downer cows do not recover because the farmers do not realise the feed they give is short of energy, proteins, minerals and vitamins. Cows that are down also end up not taking enough water and get dehydrated.

Below are the questions from farmers and the answers I supplied.

Waweru, Murang’a: I have a cow that has been down for one week. The cow went down soon after calving and was treated by a paravet with calcium solution under the skin.

Despite giving additional calcium salt by mouth, the animal has failed to stand. To make matters worse, the cow has developed uterus infection, mastitis and wounds all over the body. Doctor, can this cow ever recover?

The treatment for milk fever is calcium solution directly into the blood given until the cow shows signs of sufficient calcium levels in the blood.

I explained these signs in last week’s article. Cases of milk fever are better treated by a veterinary doctor because it is important to differentiate if calcium is the only problem or there are other concurrent problems such as nerve damage or infections. Further, it is the veterinary doctor who is trained to give drugs directly into the blood safely and effectively.

When dairy cattle are unable to stand, the farmer should be wary of complications. Wounds appear on the body starting with pressure points such as leg joints, the outside of the thighs, ribs and the hip bones.

Sustained pressure on these parts and frequent friction as the cow tries to stand injure the skin and underlying tissues causing wounds.

If not managed properly, the wounds get bacterial infection, produce toxins and may cause the cow’s death. Sometimes maggots may even be found thriving in the wounds.

Cows that are down should be provided with heavy soft bedding that is kept dry all the time. Cattle mattresses are very good bedding because they can be washed, dried and reused.

I advise farmers with many cattle to always have a stock of cattle mattresses even if all the cows are not provided with the mattresses.

Bloat may occur and even kill the cow if it lies on the left side of the body. This is because pressure on the rumen prevents it from functioning properly to expel the huge amount of gas continuously produced in the rumen.

Mastitis also often occurs in recumbent cows because the teats are milked and left to be in contact with the floor. After milking, the teat canal remains open for about 30 minutes.

With the teat tip in contact with the floor or bedding, bacteria just walk in and cause mastitis. Active mastitis must be treated promptly.

A milking cow that is down should be provided with a clean plastic surface for the udder to lie on for the first one hour after every milking to allow the teat canal opening to close fully. The teats should also be dipped in iodine solution after milking.

A cow that is down with milk fever may develop uterus infection because the low levels of calcium prevent effective uterus contraction to expel remnants of the birth fluids.

The fluid is a good medium for bacterial growth and if not expelled, bacteria that may have invaded the uterus during calving quickly multiply and cause infection.

Waweru’s cow turned out to be a textbook case of milk fever complications. I advised him that with diligent, appropriate treatment by a veterinary doctor, the animal could still recover.

However, the treatment and management cost could be very heavy. It was advisable to destroy the animal and get a replacement.

Wachira, Kirinyaga:My cow has been down for a week. The cow’s hind feet had turned backward and the animal had not stood after a difficult calving.

It was eating well and the nose was wet. A neighbour had advised me to give the cow calcium salt, which I have been doing in feeds.

I advised him this was nerve damage and not milk fever. The cow should be slaughtered for human consumption because it was unlikely to ever stand again.

Were, Maseno: I had given my cow sugar cane pieces to apparently provide it with energy from the sugar. The cow went down the following day and died. Was this really milk fever?

Were’s case was grain overload, medically called lactic acidosis. When ruminant animals take too much carbohydrate, they produce a lot of lactic acid in the rumen, which is then absorbed into the blood and poisons the animal to death.

It also damages the rumen wall and allows bacteria and digestive toxins to get into the body and accelerates the animal’s death.

Wambua, Machakos:My cow went down but was not pregnant or milking. Could this have been milk fever?

He was feeding the cow with dry maize stocks and grass.

It was a typical case of downer cow due to low energy levels. I advised him to feed the cow a balanced diet in adequate quantities and lots of water.

Njeru, Kiambu:I have a cow that has been down for three weeks. I had taken good care of it after it calved down and it appeared to have no complications.

The only problem is that the cow was initially treated for milk fever. I am worried the animal might never stand again.

I advised Njeru to continue taking good care of the animal for about another one week and dispose it for slaughter if it did not improve.

Theoretically, downer cows should be written off after one week of good treatment and management. I advise farmers to take a longer period.

My record-holder stayed down for 24 days. She then stood up and produced five more calves without ever going down again.

Farmers with downer cows should ensure that they get diagnosis and treatment from a veterinary doctor. The doctor should properly advise the farmer on how to avoid the complications of low energy, dehydration, bloat, mastitis, uterus infection, pressure and injury wounds and pneumonia.