Your Reading List

Septic arthritis a common bovine foot problem

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Roy Lewis


Very often we get called out or a cow is brought in with an unrelenting lameness the producer has treated two or three times for a footrot but to no avail. The cow is often bearing almost no weight on the leg. The diagnosis is septic arthritis, but with treatment the outcome can quite often be very favourable.

Besides the almost fracture-like lameness from all the pain, one claw will be affected and it will be considerably more swollen than the other. A telltale sign is the infection will have broken out and be draining just above the coronary band on the affected side.

Infection has gotten into the last joint on the claw and because this infection is in an enclosed space, the pain is very intense. There is little to no weight bearing on the entire foot. A crack in the hoof, deep footrot or sole abscess or a penetrating wound can all lead to infection being introduced into the joint. Rarely, a blood-borne infection will localize here but generally it occurs in the higher joints such as the stifle or carpus. They are more commonly seen in the outside front claw and secondly in the inside rear claw.

There are four possible courses of action with a septic arthritis. If the cow or bull is older, shipping is a possibility provided no antibiotics have been given. Long-term antibiotics can on occasion allow the joint to fuse. This basically means the infection eats away the cartilage and the two bones fuse together much like you would have with a fracture repair. Calcium is deposited and when the fusion occurs pain is relieved and weight bearing reappears. The toes will appear club-like but function is maintained.

The third scenario involves freezing the foot and actually drilling out the joint. This area is flushed with antibiotics or beta-dine and is also allowed to fuse. There is quite a bit of pain with the treatment so painkillers are often administered.


The fourth action involves a claw amputation. This gives quick relief from the pain has a good long-term outcome and is fairly easy for most veterinarians to perform. I will describe a claw amputation so you will know what to expect if one is required on your cattle.

If a decision is made to perform a claw amputation, it is either done tranquilized and down, or lightly sedated standing in a squeeze chute. The affected claw is scrubbed and the whole foot is frozen with what we call a regional IV block. A tourniquet is placed around the foot to keep the lidocaine in the area but also to control bleeding while the procedure is done.

Once we have good anesthesia the claw is amputated at an angle to ensure we remove above the infection. This leaves a larger open wound which is bandaged tightly with an antibiotic ointment and the tourniquet is removed. I like to leave the patient in the chute a minute or so to insure blood is not leaking through the bandage as sometimes certain areas have to be more tightly wrapped.

I often cover with long-acting antibiotics and have the producer change the bandage once after four days repeat the antibiotics, and that is about all. The stump will have a bit of local infection which is just washed off. Most of the time they recover uneventfully and the stump gets closed over.


With claw amputations there are a few precautions. With breeding bulls, I advise not amputating the back claws. The breeding pressure will cause the other claw to break down so shipping might be advised here. Cows will last several years before the other claw may start to show tendon stretching. The cow may need a trim on the good claw a little more often than her herdmates but that is about all.

The chronic pain may be detrimental to pregnancy so I don’t hesitate doing them in almost any stage of pregnancy. If she was really close it may be wise to let her calve and then do the amputation. Our clinic does a few on calves but they are less common. More commonly in calves an osteomyelitis (bone infection) may accompany the septic arthritis and antibiotics may be needed longer than with cows.

If flies are an issue fly tags or pour-ons such as cylence may be a good idea. Heifer calves often would not be kept as replacements but I know of several occasions where they were kept and produced many calves. Most cows with claw amputations you have to look twice at to be able to spot them.

Cows can bear all their weight easily on the one claw so consider this procedure next time you have a cow diagnosed with a septic arthritis. You will be pleased with the results and it will save you from shipping an otherwise productive cow.



Stories from our other publications