The cause of lameness in cattle isn’t always straightforward

One of every two dozen animals are diagnosed with lameness, but you can lower that number

Lameness can have several causes and determining the right one is key to treating it.
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Not all lameness is caused by foot rot so getting a proper diagnosis is the key to determining the appropriate treatment and management.

Lameness can affect any type of cattle including feedlot animals, breeding bulls, range cows, or animals confined to a corral. It limits an animal’s interest in eating, drinking, or breeding, resulting in lower weight gains and conception rates, making it an animal health and welfare concern, as well as a production and economic issue.

A 2019 study reported that lameness is the leading cause for health treatments in breeding cows and bulls.

However, diagnosing lameness isn’t always straightforward as the condition can be caused by multiple interrelated factors. Another recent feedlot study analyzed health records from 28 different western Canadian feedlots over a 10-year period to determine common lameness conditions. Overall, lameness was diagnosed in 4.4 per cent of steer and 4.7 per cent of heifer placements.

Comparing diagnoses by class of cattle, 4.9 per cent of calves were diagnosed with lameness compared with 4.0 per cent of yearlings. Of the lameness diagnoses, foot rot was most common at 74.5 per cent of lameness cases, followed by joint infections at 16.1 per cent, then lameness with no visible swelling at 6.1 per cent, followed by lameness due to injury 3.1 per cent.

The analysis also demonstrated that there may be some risk factors. Fall- and winter-placed calves were at a greater likelihood of being diagnosed with foot rot compared to yearlings. The study showed health status was a risk factor. Cattle diagnosed with lameness due to injury, joint infection, or lameness with no visible swelling were associated with a diagnosis of bovine respiratory disease.

In another study, researchers found that lameness accounted for 37.4 per cent of cattle in the chronic illness pen, with another 10.9 per cent of cattle being diagnosed with both respiratory disease and lameness. Transport is also a factor and can make any lameness issues worse. Healthy and fit cattle are at a low risk for lameness caused by transport, however, a 2008 survey reported that market cows were at a greater risk for lameness than fed cattle, feeders, or calves and the likelihood of lameness increased with the duration of transport.

There are four common general causes of lameness:

  • Infection (foot rot, digital dermatitis, toe tip necrosis, infectious arthritis);
  • Nutrition (laminitis, mycotoxin-related necrosis);
  • Physical injury (frostbite, sprain, break);
  • Genetics (bad conformation, temperament).

Infections can be difficult to diagnose, particularly because some are well understood, and some are not.

Foot rot is often characterized by a sudden onset of lameness and is worse during wet conditions. People sometimes assume any lameness is caused by foot rot however, this is not true. Foot rot is highly infectious and is typically caused by Fusobacterium necrophorum bacteria. The infection originates in between the claws of the hoof and may be characterized by heat and swelling in between the claws, as well as along the coronary band where the hoof meets the skin. If it is not identified and treated promptly, the infection can cause complications however, foot rot infections almost always respond well to treatment.

Toe tip necrosis is a lameness condition affecting the hind feet of feedlot cattle and research and information is emerging. It develops early in the feeding period, and often occurs within cohorts of animals. It has been associated with improper processing, poor handling, abrasive flooring, or flighty animal behaviour. Careful, low-stress handling and proper flooring may help prevent the development of toe tip necrosis.

Digital dermatitis, also known as hairy heel wart or strawberry foot rot, is a skin infection characterized by raised, painful lesions that are red and bleed easily if disturbed, and some have long fibrous hairs. Animals appear to walk on their tiptoes to avoid putting pressure on their heels. It is highly infectious and doesn’t respond well to injectable antibiotic treatment. It is being increasingly diagnosed in confined beef cattle.

While lameness can be an overwhelming problem, there are many useful management practices producers can implement to help reduce lameness, including:

  • Regular pen cleaning and landscaping to ensure proper drainage, good footing, and minimal buildup of manure and bacteria that cause lameness (i.e. Fusobacterium necrophorum);
  • Disinfecting and maintaining hoof-trimming equipment and tools;
  • Removing sharp objects, such as rocks, ice, wire or metal, that may cause injury;
  • Vaccinating/preconditioning cattle to reduce disease and improve overall health and immunity in order to minimize risk of lameness as a secondary ailment;
  • Practising low-stress animal handling;
  • Incorporating proper handling facility designs that include adequate traction and comfortable footing;
  • Applying lime to barn floors following cleaning between fills to make the environmental pH less friendly to infectious lameness-causing bacteria;
  • Consulting with your veterinarian regarding the potential use of a Fusobacterium necrophorum vaccine to prevent foot rot;
  • Incorporating step-up rations for high-grain diets to reduce the risk of acidosis and laminitis;
  • Testing feeds for potential mycotoxins that may lead to ergot poisoning;
  • Carefully inspecting feet and legs on breeding cattle to ensure they are fit and sound;
  • Prior to transport, carefully considering whether animals are suited for shipping. Market cows are at a greater risk for lameness and injury during transport.

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