Directorate Communication_________________________________________________



M.S.K. Mashishi

Often we see animals lying down that are not able to stand up on their own. They might be lying down because they are sick or have walked a long distance. The problem is not necessarily with their feet. There are different diseases and conditions that can result in recumbent animals (animals lying down).

If only one animal is recumbent, then individual attention can be given. However, if most animals in the herd are recumbent, the possibility of plant poisoning, feed-related problems, water-source problems or an outbreak of a disease should be investigated. Many other things can also cause recumbent animals.


This is a condition where livestock get too little feed or poor-quality feed or both. It is mostly seen during dry winter periods and droughts. It often occurs where the veld is overgrazed.

Pregnant cows have a high demand for nutrients and they will be more severely affected. Poor-quality feed does not have the protein and energy needed to maintain the good condition of the animals. The animals gradually lose weight until they are too weak to walk short distances or even stand.

Animals that are suffering from malnutrition are at risk of being affected by other diseases because their defence mechanism (immune system) is weakened.

Nerves that are found on the inside of the thighs in both rear legs may be injured when a cow has difficulty in giving birth or the attendant is too rough when pulling the calf out. The cow will be seen sitting down in a "frog position". Thigh muscles are often bruised during difficult birth because of an oversized calf. Other nerve injuries of the legs occur when an animal has been  recumbent for a long period. 

Another important condition seen 2 to 3 days after giving birth is milk fever. If not treated immediately death may result.

Different diseases affecting other parts of the body can also result in recumbency. This is because the temperature of sick animals increases (fever) and causes weakness. For example, infection of the udder and uterus (womb), parasites in the blood (gallsickness or redwater), and three-day stiffsickness cause cattle to be recumbent.

Broken bones, dislocated hips, foot rot, arthritis or any spinal (back) problem such as an abscess exerting pressure on the spinal cord can cause an animal to lie down.

Poisoning occurs when animals have easy access to poisonous plants. These plants are usually among the first green plants during spring. Some are the first to appear after veld fires. Poisonings also occur after sudden changes in the weather or when fodder contains poisonous plants. Animals tend to prefer fresh green plants and a number of these are most toxic when they are in their growing stages.

Different poisonous plants affect different systems of the body. Some cases of plant poisoning will result in recumbency, while others will manifest as diarrhoea or blindness.

Plants that affect the nerves and muscles, e.g. tulp, will cause paralysis of the rear legs in ruminants, especially cattle. Plants affecting the heart, lungs and brain will also cause animals to lie down but there will be other signs as well.

A shortage of minerals, such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorus in the body causes recumbency. High-producing dairy cows, such as Jerseys, often suffer from milk fever. This condition mostly occurs 2 to 3 days after the cow has given birth. It is caused by a calcium deficiency in the body. The muscles of the head and legs will start shaking, the cow will have difficulty in walking and rising and eventually lies down on its chest with the neck twisted to the side. Most cows die if they are not treated within 12 hours.

A lack of phosphorus causes pica in animals (appetite for strange objects such as plastics, decaying carcasses, faeces, etc). Eating decaying carcasses and contaminated vegetation causes botulism in cattle.



  • Depending on the size of the animal, daily try to make it stand by supporting it under the body with your hands (ask someone to help you) for a few minutes and then let it lie down again. You can also try and make it stand by fastening a bovijack (if available) to a tree. Homemade slings made from feed bags can also be used.



Can the animal recover?

         The chance of recovery also depends on the cause. For example, if the condition is caused by milk fever, and it is identified in the early stages of the disease (within 6 hours) then the chances of recovery are good. If, however, the cause is a damaged nerve, the animal may not recover.

For further information about treatment and prevention of recumbent animals, consult your nearest state or private veterinarian or animal health technician


Animal Health for Developing Farmers
ARC-Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute
Private Bag X05


Compiled by Directorate Communication, National Department of Agriculture
in cooperation with
ARC-Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute

Printed and published by National Department of Agriculture
and obtainable from Resource Centre, Directorate Communication, Private Bag X144, Pretoria 0001, South Africa


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Information provided by
Animal Health for Developing Farmers
ARC-Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute
Private Bag X05, Onderstepoort 0110
Tel. (012) 529 9158