Dorsal Recumbency: Getting Stuck Upside-Down

Carol Raczykowski

(Reprinted from Pygmy Goat WORLD magazine with permission)

Pygmy goats are not the only animals that fall prey to accidents involving death by dorsal recumbency - rolling onto the back and being unable to get up. Other ruminants, such as cattle and sheep, are at equal risk. All it takes is a bit of bad luck and a full rumen to create the situation. Although full-barreled goats, and those in late pregnancy, may be more at risk, even a the most fit and slender doe could find herself in this predicament.

How does it happen? Usually an animal gets trapped in a situation where it is rolled onto its back. Perhaps another goat butted her over. Maybe she jumped and simply landed wrong. She may have been sunning herself on a slight incline with her feet uphill when she tipped a little too far into a depression or furrow. Regardless of how it happens, once a goat rolls past that crucial 90 degree point where she cannot get her feet on the ground to help right her, she usually cannot roll back over. Very few animals other than horses, dogs and cats can roll over without experiencing problems. Once a ruminant is on its back, it almost always stays there.

When a goat is on its back, the weight of the rumen puts pressure on the diaphragm and makes breathing difficult. The heavy rumen blocks the esophagus and traps the gas that the boat normally releases by belching at 1- or 2-minute intervals. At the same time, pressure on the blood vessels compromises circulation. With the respiratory and vascular systems both compromised, the goat soon loses consciousness. Death can occur between five to thirty minutes or so.

If you are lucky enough to find your goat alive on its back and roll her over, don't be surprised if she rolls right back over or appears to have no control of her limbs. If the goat has been upside-down for a while, she may have lost her "right reflex." The righting reflex enables a goat to orient itself just like you and I. When we start to fall, our eyes and head look where we are going and our body follows and tries to right itself. When a goat is turned upside-down she experiences a lack of oxygen and blood supply to the brain, disconnecting her normal reflexes.

If you find your goat on her back, gently roll her back over onto her stomach and chest. Try to calm her down and evaluate the extent of her disorientation. If she cannot stand on her own or if she is at all shaky, she will need to be propped up until she regains her righting reflex.

Putting her in a body sling with her feet touching the ground works great. A blanket or sheet can be put under her belly and elevate her so her feet are just touching the ground. Make the goat as comfortable as possible and every hour lower the sling down to see if she can hold her weight and steady herself. It may take one hour or more. I've seen cattle that were unable to stand for several days. When you feel comfortable that your goat is back to normal, take her out of the sling but watch her closely for several days to check for possible problems.

There are several possible side affects of dorsal recumbency, some life threatening. A goat usually starts bloating as soon as it is turned over. This may remain a problem once the goat is upright. A displaced abomasum is another possible side effect. If she was pregnant at the time of the incident, she may abort, depending on the lenght of time she was trapped. If she experienced a prolonged lack of oxygen or a high level of stress, chances are she will abort. This will not affect later pregnancies.

Goats that may be more prone to dorsal recumbency are the gals (or lads) that can't get through the barn door - too-heavy, round-bodied animals. It's logical to assume that these animals would be more prone to lose their balance, roll onto their backs and be unable to right themselves as readily as a slender young kid. Does in late gestation may be more prone to this problem. However, dorsal recumbency can happen to even your most slender and athletic doe. It is purely mechanical when a goat gets beyond that 90 angle with her feet in the air. It just can't get back up, especially if they are in a furrow or slight depression. They are very similar to a turtle in this way.

An autopsy on a goat that has died from dorsal recumbency will show blood pooled in the lower body, congested neck and head, and pale lungs. The nature of the "bloat line" in the rumen will determine if the goat bloated before or after death - all ruminants bloat after they die.

Dorsal recumbancy can cause death from any number of things, including bloat, suffocation, shock or heart failure. Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent dorsal recumbancy because the great majority of cases are simply accidental. Filling in depressions and being a watchful herdsperson may help, but accidents are a very real part of raising livestock.


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