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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

    This resource has been partially reviewed and updated by a member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff as of March 22, 2022*

    *When we migrated over to our new website at the beginning of May 2022, this resource reverted back to the old version. If you read this resource between March 22nd and early May 2022, you’ve read the version below. If you read this resource between May 1st and June 23rd, you’ll find the version below contains updates and additional information.

    Because they are almost never given the chance to live anywhere close to their natural lifespan, it can be difficult to find information about how to care for older cows. The sad truth is that outside of the sanctuary community, many cow “experts” may never have had the opportunity to meet an elderly cow. In fact, it’s not uncommon for folks who are otherwise knowledgeable about cows to be completely unaware of just how long they can live and how big they can get. 

    Like all animals, cows may need a little extra care to help them thrive in their old age. As a cow ages, they may face more health challenges, so it’s important to be vigilant in monitoring their health through daily observation,  regular health checkups, and regular weigh-ins (or body condition assessments, if weigh-ins are not possible) so that you can catch and respond to 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 osteoarthritis and other mobility issues, 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. Breeds typically raised for their flesh, such as Herefords, can often live into their twenties if their weight is managed, but some of the larger, more muscular breeds may have a shorter lifespan due to the strain that weight puts on their legs, and because males are larger than the females of the same breed, they may have shorter lifespans than their female counterpart.

    Food Recommendations For Older Cows

    While some older cow residents may continue to thrive on a standard cow diet consisting of fresh and/or dried forages, others may require certain modifications or supplementation. Both weight loss and obesity are concerning, so closely monitoring your cow residents’ weight is important. Older cows may become overweight as they continue to eat at the same pace while lowering their general activity levels due to arthritis or general stiffness. While this issue is not exclusive to breeds typically bred for their flesh, obesity can be particularly common in these individuals. Excess weight can lead to a host of health issues and can exacerbate existing conditions, so you should look at ways to help them maintain a healthy weight. This may include feeding a lower quality grass hay rather than richer hay, encouraging safe exercise, or working with your veterinarian to manage any pain that may be affecting their activity level.

    Weight loss could be due to various issues such as dental disease, an underlying health condition, or eating less due to environmental factors or social dynamics. It’s important to identify the cause of the weight loss, take steps to address the issue, and make changes to their diet, living arrangement, and/or environment, based on their needs. In some cases, you may need to separate the individual one or more times per day so you can offer them supplemental foods to ensure they are getting all the nutrients they need. 

    Potential Causes Of Weight Loss

    While these are not the only possibilities, below are some things you should consider if an older resident is losing weight (or is underweight), as well as some diet-related considerations to discuss with your veterinarian or an experienced nutritionist.

    Dental Disease

    Older cows can lose, break, or wear down some or many of their teeth through the course of their lives. Damage to or loss of a molar can then cause issues in other molars – for example, without a matching upper molar to keep it ground down, a lower molar can become painfully sharp. As a result, an older resident may have a harder time chewing comfortably and getting the proper mix of nutrients from forages. 

    Tough fresh forages and coarse hay might be especially difficult for an older cow with dental issues to eat. If you see someone dropping wads of cud, this is a telltale sign of dental issues. They try their best to chew, but because of their dental issues, they just can’t break forages down enough to digest. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian if you suspect a resident has dental issues, and if a resident is losing weight, ask to have their teeth checked to determine whether or not dental issues could be the cause (this may need to be done through a veterinary hospital’s dental service rather than through an on-site visit with your regular veterinarian). If necessary, a veterinarian can file or remove any teeth that have gotten uncomfortably sharp or painful. They can also make recommendations regarding the best diet for a resident with dental issues. In some cases, individuals with dental disease may only be able to eat soft hay (rather than hay that contains coarse stalks) or chopped hay (rather than long fibers), but supplementing with another food source may also be necessary. 

    The frequency and amount of additional food necessary will depend on the specific needs of the individual and whether or not the food is supplementing what they are getting from forages or replacing it entirely. In either case, soaking timothy pellets or other grass hay pellets can be a good option for individuals who can no longer eat dried hay. Alfalfa-based pellets should typically be avoided when feeding neutered males, as alfalfa can increase the risk of some types of urinary calculi. However, depending on the specific situation and the needs of the individual, your veterinarian may recommend including alfalfa pellets in their diet. By soaking hay pellets, they will soften and break down a bit. You can play with the consistency to find what the individual most prefers – some prefer an oatmeal-like consistency and others like it a bit soupier. To increase palatability, certain additions, such as beet pulp or a small amount of concentrates, may be recommended and can also be softened through soaking. By giving them foods that do not require the extensive chewing that hay and fresh forages require, you can ensure residents with dental issues are still getting all of the nutrients they need.

    A Note On Supplemental Commercial Foods
    While there are various commercial foods marketed for cows, not all are appropriate for sanctuary residents. Not only can some of these foods increase the risk of urinary calculi in neutered male cow residents, large quantities of concentrates can also cause other health issues such as rumen acidosis or frothy bloat

    Underlying Health Conditions

    Old Age In And Of Itself Is Not An Underlying Health Condition
    Weight loss should always be investigated – don’t just chalk it up to “old age”. Be sure to work with your veterinarian to diagnose and, if possible, treat (or manage) underlying health conditions. Your veterinarian or a nutritionist will be able to make diet recommendations based on the specific needs of the individual.

    Some health conditions can make it more difficult for a cow to maintain a healthy weight. For example, individuals with Johne’s disease or certain cancers may lose weight despite a healthy appetite. These individuals may require additional nutrients and supplementation in order to maintain a healthy weight (or to prevent/slow further weight loss). Your veterinarian may recommend a diet higher in protein, the addition of healthy fats (such as from flaxseed oil), and possibly supplemental vitamins and minerals. To increase protein levels, your veterinarian may recommend switching from grass hay to one that contains alfalfa. While this may increase the risk of urinary calculi in neutered males, if they are suffering from a chronic, incurable disease, the benefits of adding alfalfa to their diet may outweigh the risks. Your veterinarian will be best able to advise you. In addition to making changes to the type of hay you are using, residents with underlying conditions that lead to weight loss will benefit from additional supplementation such as hay pellets, beet pulp, and possibly a small amount of concentrates. If chewing is not an issue, you can consider offering these foods without soaking them, but if the individual eats very quickly, they could choke. The risk of choking is reduced when the food is soaked.

    While some underlying conditions cause weight loss without affecting the individual’s appetite, other conditions lead to weight loss because they affect the individual’s appetite. These individuals may need encouragement to eat. If you know their favorite foods, incorporating them into their diet might get them interested in eating. If you don’t know their favorite foods, do some experimenting. Try offering them some hay pellets both dried and soaked, experimenting with adding beet pulp, and try adding a small amount of different concentrates (again, try both dried and soaked if safe to do so). You can also try the “cut and carry” method – gathering a mix of cow-safe vegetation and bringing these directly to them. 

    Arthritis

    Individuals with arthritis may struggle to eat enough during the grazing season if access to fresh forages involves walking longer distances or involves walking up steep grades. We’ll discuss this more in “Outdoor Living Space Recommendations For Older Cows”. For residents with mobility issues, it’s important to make sure they have easy access to food, water, and minerals.

    We’ll discuss arthritis treatments in more detail at the end of this resource, but in addition to pain management, some sanctuaries include supplements that are recommended for humans with arthritis, such as omega-3 fatty acids or turmeric, in the diets of their arthritic cow residents.

    Social Dynamics

    In some cases, older residents may be eating less because they are getting crowded out by other residents. This occurs more often with hay than pasture vegetation because access to hay is often confined to a much smaller area than access to fresh vegetation (when available). Be sure to offer ample space for everyone to eat comfortably, and offer additional areas for residents to eat hay if it seems anyone is getting pushed away or seems intimidated by the others. In some cases, an older resident may do best in a smaller group with other residents who are more mild-mannered. We’ll talk about this more in “Social Recommendations For Older Cows”.

    Vitamin Or Mineral Deficiencies
    If it seems like an older cow isn’t thriving, be sure to work closely with your veterinarian to determine the cause. There are many possibilities, but one to consider is a vitamin or mineral imbalance due to less effective chewing and digestion. While blood work can detect some vitamin and mineral levels, others require more complicated diagnostics. Depending on the vitamin or mineral imbalance (suspected or confirmed), your veterinarian may recommend switching to a different mineral formulation or offering supplementation, which may come in an oral or injectable form. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian about vitamin and mineral supplementation – offering too much of certain vitamins or minerals can lead to toxicity or other issues. We’ve heard reports of some breeds of cows having an anaphylactic reaction to certain 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 (making sure you have the supplies on hand to do so). 

    Indoor Living Space Recommendations For Older Cows

    It’s important to monitor an older cow resident’s living space to ensure it keeps them comfortable and is free of any hazards that could cause injury. Be sure to consider:

    Flooring

    It’s especially important to monitor an older cow’s living spaces for traction issues and places where they could trip. Slips and falls can have devastating consequences in cows of all ages, but older cows may be more vulnerable to injury and could have a more challenging recovery. We recommend dirt floors for cows, but pits and slopes can develop over time as dirt washes away or is raked up during cleaning, which could cause hazards for older residents. Be sure to keep dirt floors level, and fill in holes as they develop. Keep in mind that pits and slopes might not be apparent under bedding, so be sure to routinely evaluate the floor when it has been stripped of all bedding. An arthritic cow could have difficulty getting up if they lie down in a recessed area or on a sloped surface, and being stuck down could lead to injury and/or bloat. 

    Bedding

    Older cows may also need to have different bedding in order to make it easier for them to walk and comfortably relax indoors. Cows with arthritis may not lift their legs as high as they once did when walking, which can cause them to become tangled in long-fibered straw bedding. For these individuals, consider using short-fibered straw or low-dust wood shavings. Watch for clumps of bedding getting packed between an older resident’s claws – you may need to remove this regularly, taking care not to put yourself in a dangerous position. 

    Older cow residents may spend more time lying down than they used to, which can put them at risk of developing pressure sores, especially on their sternum or near their stifles. Offering a thicker layer of soft bedding can help keep these individuals comfortable and help prevent sores. Pressure sores can be very difficult to manage once they develop, so preventing them is key. 

    Depending on your climate and your residents’ needs, a thick layer of naturally-sourced sand may be a substrate to consider for residents with mobility issues. Like any other substrate, this would need regular cleaning. Sand can provide lots of cushion, but it can also easily become cold and damp, so it may not be a good option in certain climates or during certain times of the year.

    Layout

    While indoor spaces are often slightly elevated for drainage purposes, make sure residents do not have to take a large step up in order to move from the outdoors to the indoors. A gentle slope of packed dirt will be easiest for arthritic residents to navigate. A step could result in tripping or abrasions to the feet.

    In the event that one of your older residents is unable to stand on their own, in addition to having the experience and equipment necessary to carefully move or lift them, you also want to ensure their indoor living space can accommodate this process. Low ceilings and lofts can make it impossible to use equipment to lift a resident. Therefore, we recommend older cows, in particular, live in spaces that provide enough vertical space for equipment such as a bucket tractor to fully lift the bucket attachment if needed. 

    Outdoor Living Space Recommendations For Older Cows

    As a cow resident ages, their activity level may decrease, especially if they have arthritis or another health condition that affects their mobility or stamina. If residents spend part of the year grazing in their outdoor space, be sure to consider how to make this easier for an older resident who may struggle to walk long distances. Ideally, older cows should be housed in areas where they can access pastures without having to walk very far and without having to walk up a steep grade or navigate difficult terrain. Even if the outdoor space is large, an older resident with mobility or stamina issues may not feel the need to travel very far if they have adequate forage nearby. However, if their herd is venturing further out in search of the best grass, you may find that an older resident chooses to follow them, regardless of whether or not they have pasture available in an area that is easier to access and regardless of the effort involved. In cases such as these, consider separating the individual with one or more close companions and provide them with a smaller pasture space that is easier to navigate. 

    Make sure older residents have easy access to food, water, minerals, and shelter. It’s a good idea to check on older residents regularly throughout the day (and even more often during extreme weather) to ensure they are able to move themselves into an area that provides protection from the elements. You don’t want a situation where an older cow resident finds themselves unable to rise and subsequently gets stuck in heavy precipitation, extreme temperatures, or intense sun. 

    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 cow residents 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.

    Good drainage is important in all cow living spaces to prevent them from becoming overly muddy, but keep in mind that deep, thick mud may be especially difficult for an older resident to navigate, and muddy walkways could also pose a slipping hazard.

    Social Recommendations For Older Cows

    As cows are herd animals, they typically form strong bonds with fellow cows if raised alongside other members of their species. As a result, living away from other cows can be distressing. If you decide that it’s best to separate an older cow resident from their herd, try to house them with at least one other cow with whom they are bonded. If, for some reason, this is not possible, consider other residents who may be a good fit. You can read more about safe cohabitation considerations for cows here.

    Managing Arthritis In Older Cows

    All Arthritis Solutions MUST Be Discussed With Your Veterinarian!
    Below, we offer some anecdotal solutions suggested by sanctuaries for managing arthritis in cows. However, any time you wish to explore arthritis management options, you must have a conversation with your veterinarian! Arthritis can be a complex issue – individual cow health may complicate any one treatment, and certain treatments could cause significant health complications!

    While osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease) is one of the most common health concerns in older animals, it can be particularly challenging to manage in cows due to their large size. A cow might develop osteoarthritis in any of the joints of their legs or even in their spine. Without pain management, arthritis can cause chronic pain (ranging in severity from mild to debilitating) and can affect an individual’s activity level. Severe pain can result in a general reluctance or even the inability to walk, which can then lead to a host of other health issues such as pressure sores, nerve damage, and bloat. While there is no cure for osteoarthritis, there are medications that can help alleviate pain. In order to keep individuals with arthritis comfortable, they might need a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as 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.  

    Another option to consider, and one that can be used in conjunction with the analgesics listed above, is a chondroprotective agent such as glucosamine to help repair joint cartilage and soothe inflammation. Some sanctuaries have also seen some success treating arthritis pain with alternative therapies such as acupuncture and veterinary laser therapy as well as more natural remedies (in conjunction with conventional medication) such as Boswellia (also known as Indian Frankincense), turmeric, and cow-safe herbal formulas designed for joint health. Your veterinarian may also recommend a topical treatment such as diclofenac sodium ointment (such as Surpass) or a formula designed for human use such as Aspercreme. Be sure to talk to your veterinarian about the most appropriate pain management regimen for each of your residents and talk to them about conducting blood work both before certain treatments (such as NSAID treatment) to ensure the treatment is not contraindicated and to establish a baseline to compare future blood work results to. We also recommend talking to them about conducting regular blood work for individuals on certain long-term treatments (including NSAID treatment) to monitor organ function and watch for adverse effects.

    In addition to offering treatments to reduce inflammation and pain, make extra sure that their environment is as arthritis-friendly as can be, minimizing steep grades or long walks to food or water. Make sure to talk to your veterinarian to assess the individual and create a tailor-made treatment plan for arthritis.

    SOURCES:

    Cattle Care | Farm Sanctuary

    The Benefits And Side Effects Of Adequan For Pet Arthritis

    Indian Frankincense | Arthritis Foundation

    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.

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