Ketosis: the prevalence of the disease in dairy herds in Western Europe


Ketosis in dairy cows, also known as subclinical ketosis, has become a very common type of metabolic disorder in modern dairy farming, and it is linked to the productivity of cows. The economic effects of the disease include a decrease in the production of milk in a herd, a rise in the incidence and duration of diseases in freshly calved cows, an increase in the period prior to fertilization, and an increase in the risk of culling. 

Cases of acute subclinical ketosis are regularly found and diagnosed in cows by farmers and veterinarians in the perinatal period. Clinical signs of these cases may be a sharp decrease in the physical condition of the cow, anxiety, and a decrease in feed intake and milk yield. 

These symptoms are often difficult to determine, which is why farmers fail to notice them; it is therefore impossible to accurately calculate the prevalence of the disease. Ketosis can be diagnosed by determining the concentration of ketone bodies in the blood, urine, or milk. Until recently, very little has been known about the incidence of ketosis in dairy cows in the EU that are kept in the most common systems in the period after calving – except that the disease is widespread and involves high production costs. 

The purpose of this field study was to determine the prevalence of the disease among cows in the most common systems of herd management, and determine the clinical condition of heifers exposed to the disease on dairy farms in Western Europe. The study involved 131 dairy enterprises in Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom in the period from July 2011 to October 2012. 


The study examined 7709 calved cows: 30% of them were heifers, 28%, cows in the 2nd lactation period, 41%, cows in the 3rd-7th lactation periods, and the remaining 0.7% in the 8th lactation period. Tests were conducted in the period from the 7th to the 21st day after calving, the average testing time was 13 DIM (Days in Milk). On average, the prevalence of ketosis at farms was 43% in Germany, 52% in France, 31% in Italy, 46% in the Netherlands, and 31% in the UK. 

Feeding, maintenance, and housing 

The prevalence of ketosis was lowest among the cows that were fed forage and concentrated feed separately (33%); it was 36% in herds with TMR (total mixed ration), and 50% with PMR (partly mixed ration). The lowest incidence of ketosis was recorded among cows housed in combined systems consisting of sections and straw pens; the incidence was 39% in systems with just sections, and 54% in those with just straw pens. The spread of ketosis was 35% among the animals kept indoors all year round, and it was 44-46% among cows kept on pastures, or other open areas in the summer period. 


The lowest prevalence of the disease was observed among first lactation cows, the prevalence of ketosis was significantly higher among second lactation cows, and the highest prevalence was among 3rd-7th lactation cows. Ketosis was more common in cows that had given birth more than once than those that had given birth only once. 


This field study showed that heifers are more prone to ketosis, the disease often occurs alongside other diseases of the postnatal period, that is, metritis, mastitits, postpartum paresis, lameness, gastrointestinal disorders, clinical ketosis, and displaced abomasum. The farming enterprises that took part in the study were chosen at random, the data for the study was provided by veterinary clinics located in the countries mentioned. The study examined average herds in the regions, where no routine measures had been taken to prevent ketosis. The researchers therefore believe that the conclusions drawn reflect the general situation in these countries. The strong correlation between ketosis and other diseases means that improving nutrition and care for cows to reduce cases of ketosis is likely to lead to a reduction in the incidence of diseases associated with productivity. 

Veterinarian Anna Katarina (Kat) Berg