A foot above the rest in understanding bovine lameness

Preventive care, vaccines and proper nutrition are all vital to cattle health, but if the feet or legs—which literally carry cattle from one stage of production to the next—are neglected or misdiagnosed, that animal’s profitability is at a standstill.

Dr. Meredyth Jones, DVM, and associate professor at the Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine, said lameness is tremendously costly across the board in the cattle industry, but in cow-calf it becomes a real issue for both cows and bulls.

As far as foot issues go, foot rot, a bacterial infection between the toes often caused by excessive moisture, is the preliminary diagnosis. However, understanding how to properly identify true foot rot versus other similarly presenting conditions is crucial to proper treatment. According to Jones, with foot rot there will usually be a significant amount of uniform swelling around the outside of the foot and right above the coronary band where the hoof wall meets the skin.

When considering at-home treatment, Jones said most of the time true foot root is easily treated with pharmaceuticals such as Oxytetracycline, Draxin or Nuflor. Typically if it is a straightforward case of foot rot, the cow will usually respond to one dose of any of the foot rot-labeled antibiotics within a few days. Jones said if the animal is not better in three to five days, that is a sign there is something else going on. In rare cases, it could be a condition referred to as super foot rot, but Jones said this only happens once in every 10 million cases. It is rarely seen, but one condition that is much more likely is septic joints or deep digital sepsis.

“One major difference producers need to know is that if one claw is extremely swollen and inflamed and the other claw looks normal, this is most likely a condition that started out as foot rot, but developed into an infection of the joint—most likely the distal interphalangeal joint,” Jones explained. “That joint is kind of sunk down in the hoof about three-quarters of an inch down from the junction, so you can imagine if that joint gets infected and it is inside this hard, capsule of the hoof and it starts to swell and bubble up above the hoof wall, it is incredibly painful.

“You might be thinking, if it’s infected why doesn’t the antibiotic help with that,” Jones continued. “Well the problem is, once you have infection like this that has gone on long enough to become chronic and has reached bones or joints, antibiotics can’t get in there anymore. There are some techniques we can use, but giving the cow a shot in the neck is not going to cure it.”

If it seems like more than a simple case of foot rot, contact a veterinarian for an official diagnosis and specialized treatment plan.

Sole ulcers: Just as painful as they sound

Another common foot issue is sole ulcers, which happen when the sole has been thinned on the bottom of the foot, and a pressure point develops where the hole is, infection grows underneath the area and bruises it.

“These injuries will make cattle incredibly lame, but they usually don’t have any swelling at all,” Jones explained. “This would be another situation where the cow could be treated at home with a foot rot antibiotic, but if they do not recover soon, they need to be seen by a vet.”

One of the first treatment options is a claw amputation, which has some advantages and disadvantages. It is a relatively low-cost procedure and it provides virtually instant pain relief. The downside is it is not associated with a lot of longevity, so those animals are not likely to remain in the herd for years.

“We like to reserve it for a cow that is maybe six months pregnant and we need for her to have the calf and raise it or if we have a bull that we want to finish out the breeding season,” Jones said. “In general, we don’t see cattle with amputated claws live past one year. Usually in beef cattle, what we’re trying to do is get them to a production goal.”

Another option is claw-sparing, which consists of a surgery using a drill bit to drill through the joint and flush antibiotics through the infected area. The bloodstream cannot send the antibiotics to the infection, but antibiotics like ampicillin-sulbactam and Florfenicol can be manually delivered to the infection if a hole is made and they are inserted.

“We use this in bulls, valuable cows, embryo-flushed cows and other genetically valuable animals who really need eight toes and we would really like them to stay in the herd for a while,” Jones explained. “What we do is destroy that joint and the cow heals their bones back together just like they would if it was a bone that broke, and then they become sound.”

It takes about eight weeks for all that to happen, so it is a longer recovery period as opposed to a claw amputation.

Corns and corkscrews: We are still talking about feet

Jones said many cattle develop corns, which are wart-like growths between their toes, but these cattle almost never become lame or cause problems. The only time to think about removing a corn is if an animal becomes lame on that foot. However, even if they have a corn, the lameness might not be caused by it. Jones said the only time a corn is causing a problem and needs to be removed is if it has grown so much that it is coming in contact with the ground and developing a raw spot on it, or if it is rubbing up against the hoof wall and causing discomfort. Additionally, any corn that is painful when palpated needs to be removed. Corns are a bit of an unknown because veterinarians are not sure what causes them, although they believe it could be from chronic inflammation.

Another condition that can cause cattle a great deal of pain is corkscrew claw, which causes the claw to grow in a twisted formation. Jones said it is almost always the outside claw that curves inward and in some cases will even cross over the inside claw.

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“What is also happening is that the outside wall grows down and underneath the hoof and the cow ends up walking on the hoof wall and it puts pressure on the soles and eventually it gets so bruised that they become lame,” Jones said. “This is a big concern in the beef industry because it is believed that there is some heritability associated with it—specifically in the Angus breed—and having seed stock animals with foot problems like this is highly undesirable.”

Whenever veterinarians diagnose a bull in particular with this condition, Jones said they usually recommend the owner sell the animal and not keep breeding it and passing along those genes. The only treatment for corkscrew claw is to trim the foot and correct it, but Jones said the animal will need foot trims about three or four times a year.

However, just because an animal has a twisted toe does not mean it necessarily has corkscrew claw. Jones said corkscrew claw is usually only diagnosed if both feet are affected. If it is only one foot, it is often considered to be injury-related and thus not hereditary and will not negatively affect the progeny of the bull or cow. To know for sure, consult a veterinarian.

Fractures: Below the knee, you are home free; above the stifle, get the rifle

Although diagnosis of a fractured bone sounds like a death sentence, many breaks in cattle are fixable, especially in calves. Jones said in general, if the break is below the knee or the hock, the fracture can often be fixed and at a relatively low cost. If the break is between the hock and stifle, a portion of the time the break will be fixable, but sometimes not. If the break is above the stifle or the elbow, sometimes the animal will recover, but there is no way to stabilize a fracture in that area, so it cannot be splinted on the break, thus making it difficult to mend.

“In that case, it probably needs to be a super-valuable animal for us to try to fix the fracture, because it will be a much more complicated fix than something down below,” Jones said.

However, if the bone is exposed all bets are off the table.

“There’s always a chance of bone exposure, particularly on lower breaks where these is less muscle coverage over the bones,” Jones said. “The game changes if you see bones sticking out of skin or you see blood at the place where the fracture is. If the fracture is open, the chance of infection is very high and that will change the prognosis.”

Jones said the best way to prevent the wound from opening up while transporting the animal to the vet clinic is to splint it at home with whatever is available to you. In order to stabilize the bone, place one piece of splint material lengthwise, above and below the break, and another splint 90 degrees from it, rather than 180 degrees, and duct tape around it tightly. The purpose of this makeshift splint is to stop the bone from moving side to side and front to back until a veterinarian can examine the injury and start a treatment plan.

Although lameness education might seem like basic knowledge, an improperly diagnosed condition on the ranch could be the difference between life and death for an animal. Understanding these painful foot conditions can give any producer a leg up when it comes to cattle caretaking.

“The reason I spend so much time discussing foot problems in cattle is because we get so many cattle in that have been lame for six to eight weeks, sometimes even longer, and they never had a chance of getting better,” Jones said. “So jump on these early, that way they don’t come in to me having lost a bunch of weight and suffering needlessly.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].