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Additional Care Recommendations For Older Cows

An older black and white cow in a pasture in autumn.
Older residents like Stella may need special care and attention to keep them happy and healthy. Photo: Farm Sanctuary

Updated May 18, 2020

Because they are almost never given the chance to live anywhere close to their natural lifespan, there is not very much publicly available information about how to accommodate the needs of older cows. Due to the size of their bodies and results of intensive breeding practices, there are a number of areas where a sanctuary may have to make changes to help their older cow friends thrive at their forever home.

As a cow ages, they may face more health challenges, so it’s especially important to be vigilant in monitoring their health through regular health checkups, fecal examinations, and weigh-ins (or body condition assessments, if weighing is not possible) to effectively treat issues early on.

Just How Old Can Cows Get?

The average lifespan of a cow is highly dependent on their breed, and sometimes their sex. Cows tend to develop arthritis and other mobility issues as they age which can significantly impact their overall quality of life. Because they grow to be so tall, male Holsteins tend to develop mobility issues at an earlier age than female Holsteins; While female Holsteins often can live well into their twenties (with some living close to 30 years), male Holsteins often only live into their upper teens. Cows typically raised for their flesh can often live into their twenties if their weight is managed, but some of the larger, more muscular breeds may have shorter life spans due to the strain that weight puts on their legs, and because the males are larger than the females, they may have shorter lifespans than their female counterpart.

Special Food Recommendations For Older Cows

Older cows can sometimes lose, break, or wear down some or many of their permanent teeth through the course of their long lives. As a result, they may have a harder time chewing comfortably and getting the proper mix of nutrients from standard food. Tall or tough pasture grass and hay might be especially difficult for an older cow with worn teeth to eat. If you see someone dropping wads of cud, this is a telltale sign of dental issues. They try their best to chew the grass or hay, but because of their dental issues, they just can’t break it down enough to digest. It’s especially important to monitor an older cow’s weight as they age to ensure that they are getting enough to eat (and are able to eat the food available to them). If necessary, you can make your own special food by soaking grass hay pellets and beet pulp or offering chopped hay (for females, you can offer alfalfa if they truly need the extra calcium and protein, but this can lead to urinary calculi in males). By giving them foods that do not require the extensive chewing that hay and grass require, you can ensure residents with dental issues are still getting all of the nutrients they need. You can also have a veterinarian evaluate and file or remove any teeth that have gotten uncomfortably sharp or painful, though this may need to be done through a veterinary hospital’s dental service rather than through on onsite visit with your regular veterinarian.

In general, you should be very mindful of an older cow’s weight. It is common for some breeds of cows to become overweight as they continue to eat at the same pace while lowering their general activity levels due to arthritis or stiffness. Obesity in cows can lead to a host of health issues. Underweight cows may be losing out on food from competing cows or be eating and ingesting less due to teeth troubles and may need their own special source of food to stay healthy. You can supplement a thin cow’s food with a source that is higher in protein to help them put on more weight, just make sure to keep monitoring their weight to evaluate its effectiveness, and be sure to identify the cause of the weight loss to determine if other interventions are necessary!

If it seems like older cows aren’t thriving, it could be a vitamin or mineral imbalance due to less effective eating and digestion. In addition to ensuring that the whole herd has ample access to appropriate minerals, you can supplement an older cow friend’s vitamins and minerals with a cow-safe vitamin booster, under the guidance of your veterinarian, to help clear up any nagging deficiencies. We’ve heard reports of some breeds of cows having an anaphylactic reaction to some vitamin and mineral injectable formulas, so be sure to have a discussion with your veterinarian about what signs to look for and how to respond if a resident has an adverse reaction. Discuss all potential vitamin and mineral supplementation options with your veterinarian before implementing changes.

Indoor Living Space Recommendations For Older Cows

It’s especially important to monitor older cows’ living spaces for traction and places where they could trip, as a fall would be devastating to an older resident. Be sure to keep dirt floors level and fill in holes as they develop. An arthritic cow could have difficulty getting up if they lay down in a large divot or on a sloped surface. Older cows may need to have special bedding in order to make it easier for them to sleep and relax in their sleeping areas, especially to prevent pressure sores in cows who lay down more often than they used to or are bonier than they used to be. You should use shorter fibered straw or wood shavings for older cows who drag their legs and get stuck in longer straw, or if this is not possible, you should remove any straw that gets stuck between their claws daily. For individuals who spend a good deal of time laying down, you may consider providing a regularly cleaned, (naturally-sourced only) sand-covered pen to sleep on rather than straw. Make sure that their food and water sources are close by!

Outdoor Living Space Recommendations For Older Cows

If an older cow is having a harder time thriving on your pasture due to decreased mobility, it might be time to give them (and their closest companion!) their own, smaller-sized and flat pasture to graze on. A smaller pasture with close access to food, minerals, and water, can give them the opportunity to get around easier and not have to compete with younger cows for resources like food and water. If you do provide the older cow with their own pasture, make sure they still have access to some type of shelter in case it’s necessary for your location’s climate!

If you live in an area with freezing temperatures, you may need to take extra precautions to keep older cow residents safe during these times. No cows should ever be allowed on icy terrain, as a fall could result in a life-threatening injury, but older cows may have trouble walking on hard, frozen terrain, even if it is not actually icy. During periods of fluctuating temperatures, outdoor spaces can easily become very rough and uneven, and when frozen solid, this type of terrain can be very uncomfortable for anyone, but especially an older cow who may already be a bit more stiff and sore in colder temperatures.

Social Recommendations For Older Cows

As cows are family-oriented animals, they tend to form strong bonds with fellow cows. As a result, isolated cows are highly prone to depression. If you decide that it’s best to give the older cow their own special indoor or outdoor space, make sure to house them with one of their herd friends– their closest friend if possible! This can help them feel more at home and at peace with their new surroundings.

Managing Arthritis In Older Cows

All Arthritis Solutions MUST Be Discussed With Your Veterinarian!

Below, we offer some anecdotal solutions suggested by sanctuaries for assistance in managing arthritis in cows. However, ANY time you wish to explore arthritis management option in cows, you MUST have a conversation with your veterinarian! Arthritis can be a complex issue, and individual cow health may complicate any one treatment, or certain treatments could cause significant health complications!

Arthritis is one of the most common health concerns in older animals, especially cows due to their large size. A cow might develop arthritis in any of their feet, legs, or joints. Untreated, this could eventually manifest as debilitating chronic pain. You might have to treat the older cow with cow-approved nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Phenylbutazone, Meloxicam, or Banamine (never combine NSAID treatments), or other analgesics. NSAID use can cause abomasal ulcers, and while ulcers in cows seem to be much less common than in pigs, it is still important to watch for any indication of an abomasal ulcer such as black tarry stool, a cow who appears interested in food but then does not eat, and teeth grinding or other signs of discomfort. You should contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect an abomasal ulcer. For a more long-term solution for arthritis, you can administer glucosamine or a Chondroprotective agent such as Adequan to help repair joint cartilage and soothe inflammation. Sanctuaries have also seen some success treating arthritis pains with more natural remedies in conjunction with medication such as acupuncture, Botswella (also known as Indian Frankincense) to successfully lower inflammation. Make extra sure that their environment is as arthritis-friendly as can be, minimizing steep grades or long walks to food or water if you can! Make sure to talk to your veterinarian to assess the individual and create a treatment plan for arthritis.


Cattle Care | Farm Sanctuary

The Benefits And Side Effects Of Adequan For Pet Arthritis

Indian Frankincense | Arthritis Foundation

Care Of Older Cattle | Longhorn Roundup (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on September 1, 2021

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