Many Reasons For Lameness At Pasture

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One of the most common conditions encountered in beef cattle during summer grazing is lameness.

Neither calves, cows, yearlings nor bulls are immune from developing some types of lameness. Surprisingly, many are treated even though they really don’t require much for treatment. Producers often use the all-encompassing term of foot rot, yet most lameness at pasture is not caused by foot rot (although this summer may see a higher than normal incidence of foot rot because of wet conditions).

This article looks at many forms of lameness seen at pasture and the steps necessary to correct them. For example, I supervised 90 dry cows at pasture last summer and out of 12 cases of lameness (all on different cows), only one case was treated. All the rest cleared up uneventfully.

After lame livestock are spotted, get up close to them, which should not be difficult. Spend some time observing them, using binoculars if need be. First determine which leg is lame and then look for signs of swelling, the degree of weight bearing on the affected leg and how they ambulate. Look for evidence of cracks in hooves, toes spread apart, corns, long hooves or curled toes – all may cause foot pain.

Of course, as with any condition or illness, record a description of the animal including colour, ear tag and any distinguishing features as this makes them easier to find when doing followup checks.

Once the location and condition causing the lameness has been determined, the course of action is determined. My main point here is if you have a true foot rot with swelling of the foot and, in advanced cases, the dead rotting flesh between the toes, treatment with antibiotics should prove very effective. Many different antibiotics are effective, so you and your veterinarian need to determine which is best suited to your situation. A number of the long-acting products are very effective against foot rot and often one shot is enough if the situation is detected early. Some newer products require a veterinary prescription if used against foot rot, so work with your veterinarian to find the right course of action.

Two categories

Many of the other types of lameness fall into two broad categories – those requiring more involved procedures and those in which the animal simply needs to convalesce on its own with no treatment. If the problem is a broken leg, action can range from emergency slaughter in larger animals to either casting or splint applications in younger ones. In young calves, casts and splints (depending on the location of the break) have a very high success rate if found early before the bone has broken out through the skin.

A couple other conditions which need further care are sole abscesses and septic arthritis. With sole abscesses there is almost no weight bearing, yet often no swelling is evident. These need to be brought home and a therapeutic foot trim performed by your veterinarian. The abscess is opened up and drained. We often see this in association with bad feet or a crack in the wall which allows the infection to enter. Because the infection is enclosed and just under the sole, it is very painful when weight is placed on the affected foot.

As with other very painful conditions, it will be up to you and your veterinarian whether painkillers are needed. Sometimes limping with convalescence allows the condition to heal quicker rather than removing the pain, creating a false sense of improvement, and then discovering – once the painkillers wear off – that the condition has worsened.

Septic arthritis

A septic arthritis is when infection has been introduced into the last joint just beneath the hoof. Often treatment with antibiotics has been tried several times with no improvement. The infection often breaks out just above the hoof. Often the curative procedure is either amputating the toe or drilling out the joint. Either procedure requires restraint, local anesthetic and is best done at a clinic. There is also followup care, so removal from pasture is the obvious thing to do.

Most of the multitude of other lameness problems are transient and my suggestion is to not stress the cattle by catching them initially. Just like people, cattle can sprain or strain themselves in a multitude of ways. Stepping in gopher holes, slipping on wet terrain or rock bruises can all lead to transient lameness problems. Cattle with poor feet, long hooves, or abnormal gaits are definitely more predisposed to these problems. Hoof abnormalities such as cracks (horizontal or vertical), corns or long hooves ripping off too short will also lead to lameness. A good hoof trimming in spring will prevent a lot of these problems in summer.

By maintaining your herd’s hoof care and selecting breeding stock, especially herd bulls, for good feet and legs will go a long ways to preventing a large number of cases of pasture lameness. For those that do occur, don’t rush for the antibiotic syringe without first closely assessing the actual cause. Remember if treatment isn’t practical, emergency slaughter is always an option as long as drugs have not already been given.


Lookforevidenceof cracksinhooves,toes spreadapart,corns, longhoovesorcurled toesallmaycause footpain.

About the author


Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.



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