What to look for – can cause a range of signs

Wasting form:

  • Rapid loss of condition 2 -8 weeks after calving
  • Drop in milk yield
  • Poor appetite
  • Breath smells strange (like acetone) due to the presence of ketones

Nervous form:

  • Incoordination
  • Strange behaviour e.g. sucking items in the environment, wandering aimlessly
  • May become aggressive


Ketosis usually occurs in early lactation when there is a huge increase in energy requirements for milk production and animals are unable to produce enough glucose. It can also be triggered at any time by another problem that causes inadequate feeding and/or a disturbance in metabolism, a condition known as secondary ketosis.

Animals likely to be affected

Cows in early lactation (from 2 to 8 weeks after calving). Occurs most often in cows in their 3rd to 6th lactations, but can occur in animals of any age if their diet is inappropriate or they are suffering from another serious illness.

Other diseases with similar signs

Any diseases that cause sudden weight loss and/or nervous signs e.g. grass tetany, lead poisoning, displaced abomasum or infections in internal organs.

Confirming the diagnosis

A simple urine or milk test can detect ketones but will not determine if the ketosis is secondary to another disease. Diagnosis of any underlying condition is important in these cases. Consult your vet to undertake an assessment of the animal and recommend appropriate action.


Treatment of any underlying condition is important. To correct the energy imbalance, the aim is to increase blood glucose levels and provide nursing support for the animal over the next few days. Drenching with propylene glycol or glycerine may be useful, but drugs generally need to be injected into the vein so consult your vet as soon as ketosis is suspected.

Risk factors

  •  Inadequate feed supply in early lactation
  • Poor appetite caused by lameness, mastitis or other conditions
  • Unpalatable feed or poor quality silage
  • Left displaced abomasum


Ensure that animals are well fed especially during the latter part of the dry period and in the early stages of lactation. Good feed management during the transition period will also reduce the risk of other diseases such as milk fever and grass tetany and improve production during the entire lactation.

More information

Transition feeding with limited effective fibre (PDF, 281KB)

Around calving, the dairy cow undergoes a dramatic transition from dry and heavily pregnant to fully lactating. This is a stressful period for the cow and she is vulnerable to many problems and disorders that can affect her health and productivity. Feeding during the last 2-3 weeks before calving not only determines what happens to body condition at this time, but also provides an opportunity to prepare the cow for the coming lactation. Find out what you can do, including management tips and pre-calving diets with low DCAD.

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