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Lameness in Beef Cattle

Friday, 09 July 2021

Lameness in Beef Cattle

Lameness in the beef herd has not received the same attention as with dairy cattle.

Despite causing significant production losses and welfare concerns the incidence of lameness is often underestimated in beef herds. This article highlights some of the common conditions, the causative factors and how to manage the conditions.

Cases of lameness within a herd are unavoidable but some factors can help reduce the incidence. These include:

  • Routine foot trimming: Often performed prior to the breeding season, helping to ensure good toe length and foot balance of the hoof. Some cows will maintain optimal toe length and balance without the need for routine trimming (environment depending) but they should still be routinely examined. Trimming should be avoided during the four weeks prior and four weeks after calving as horn growth is reduced during this period.
  • Reduce environmental factors:
  • Reduce infection pressure: some cases of lameness are caused by pathogens which often flare up during winter housing due to poor slurry management.
  • Stony/muddy fields cause skin damage allowing infectious agents to penetrate the foot.
  • Gentle handling/good handling facilities e.g. reduce sharp corners
  • Early identification and effective treatment: Untreated lameness can lead to irreversible damage to the foot and infectious causes soon spread through the herd if not identified quickly.


1. Sole haemorrhage

Mild causes are seen as pink/yellow discolouration of the hoof sole. More severe cases are red to purple in colour -caused by excessive pressure on the soft tissue that produces the horn of the sole (corium). Often affected cattle will only be a bit sore or go unnoticed. If seen it is likely the damage occurred a few months prior (blood gets incorporated into new horn) or is ongoing. If seen widespread over the sole it suggests the sole is too thin. Sole haemorrhage is seen as a precursor for sole ulcer formation as the horn produced by damaged corium will be poor or non-existent.

Risk factors for sole haemorrhage:

  • Thin cattle - higher risk due to a thin digital cushion (fat pad that protects the corium from the pedal bone).
  • Pedal bone rotates downwards at calving and can put pressure on the corium causing damage and inflammation.
  • Poor hoof conformation – e.g. long toes.
  • Excessive standing associated with overcrowding during housing.
  • Walking long distances or on rough terrains.

Treatment: Identification of significant sole haemorrhage can reduce the severity of a potential sole ulcer. Taking the weight off the affected claw and using an anti-inflammatory (such as Rheumocam) will reduce ongoing damage.

Risk factors are the same as for sole haemorrhage.

2. Sole Ulcer

Very painful condition whereby the soft tissues that produce the horn of the sole are damaged and normal horn cannot be produced leading to exposed soft tissue. Ulcers are often seen two to three months after the initial inciting cause as horn is produced at 5mm per month with the thickness being usually 10-15mm. Sole ulcers often occur in the middle third of the sole at the site below the pedal bone as this is the area that is damaged due to pedal bone rotation at calving.

Risk factors are the same as for sole haemorrhage.

Treatment: The aim is to stop the cow from having to weight bear on the exposed soft tissue by using a shoe on the healthy claw. Pain relief must be provided. Due to the extent of damage required to cause a sole ulcer these cows will often have ongoing lameness issues with multiple trims likely to be required.

The exposed tissue will be prone to infection. If there is swelling around the coronary band or fetlock joint then a long course of antibiotic treatment is required with the prognosis for a good functional outcome being poor. Severe infection can lead to deep digital sepsis in which case a digit amputation can be considered.

3. White line disease

Initially non-infectious whereby the hoof wall separates from the sole allowing foreign material to penetrate and infect the white line region. Infection can produce localised abscesses or can track deeper and can lead to pus bursting from the coronary band or the heel. Degree of lameness depends on severity of abscessation.

Risk factors:

  • Poor tracks: wet/stony or rough concrete.
  • Sharp corners.
  • Stockperson over pushing the cows during catching/handling.
  • Thin soles (over-trimming).
  • Dietary: biotin deficiency

Treatment: Paring out the infection and dishing out around the lesion to reduce further impaction with anti-inflammatories +/- a shoe to take weight off the affected claw is often sufficient. Deeper infection with more severe lameness and swelling will require antibiotics.

Sole Haemorrhage

Sole Haemorrhage

Soul Ulcer

Sole Ulcer

White Line Disease

White Line Disease

4. Hoof fissures (vertical/horizontal)

Horizontal fissures are associated with periods of stress, such as calving, whereby the horn produced during this period is thinner and weaker (hardship/founders lines) and therefore is more likely to crack. These vary in severity from a groove of thinner hoof to complete absence. Often similar lesions are seen on all four hooves.

Vertical fissures are much more common in beef cattle and the cause is largely unknown but is associated with dry conditions, nutritional imbalances and are often seen in heavier animals.

Often fissures do not cause lameness but complicated cases arise when infection gets within the cracks or when soft tissue protrudes through.

Hoof Fissures
Hoof Fissures

5. Trauma

The causes and results of trauma are limitless but are often seen in association with calving/bulling injuries or falls during handling. Trauma can be to nerves, muscles or bones and often veterinary intervention should be sought if the extent of the damage is unclear.

"Knuckling over" - Tibial nerve paralysis - a common result of a difficult calving or bulling injury.


1. Digital Dermatitus

Digital dermatitis is a skin infection of the hoof caused by bacteria called Treponemes, commonly affecting the heels or between the claws, but can be found in other areas including infecting sole ulcer lesions or spreading up the leg. Chronic lesions can create “hairy warts” whereby thick hairs grow from the lesion. Digital dermatitis is painful and quickly spreads throughout a herd.

In beef herds this condition commonly appears during winter housing when cattle are in close proximity and can be particularly severe if there is overcrowding or poor slurry management. Digital dermatitis is not present in every herd and can be bought-in with purchased cattle especially in the instance of carrier animals.

Treatment: A long term control plan is needed as elimination is unlikely. Herd control commonly include foot bathing frequently (copper/zinc formulations or formalin are effective with various benefits and drawbacks) and improving slurry management. Individual cattle can be treated with topical treatments including antibiotic sprays/powders or products such as gels or powders containing copper/ zinc compounds. Bandages for topical treatments must not be left on for more than two days as Treponemes do not like oxygen and therefore leaving the lesion open to the air is beneficial.

Systemic injectable antibiotics are not necessary and herd wide use of an antibiotic in the foot bath is rarely effective and hard to justify from an antibiotic resistance point of view.

2. Foul in the Foot

Foul in the foot occurs when bacteria (Fusobacterium necrophorum) invade damaged skin, typically between the claws from standing on a sharp stone. Swelling is usually marked, with claws pushed apart, and will spread to the entire foot and can continue up the leg - often a characteristic odour is present. As the condition progresses the damaged tissue will slough off allowing secondary bacteria to cause further infection. This condition is extremely painful but with quick identification and treatment with an appropriate antibiotic it is treatable. If left untreated the infection can enter the various joints and lead to irreversible damage.

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