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14 common hoof and leg issues that can lead to lameness

Kayla Pecora for Progressive Dairy Published on 01 February 2021

Depending on the cause of lameness, there are different signs to watch for to help determine the issue and treatment course of action.

Identifying the issue can also help to determine the underlying root cause, which could be environmental (including hygiene and housing), injury, genetics, lactation stage, nutrition or related to hoof trimming maintenance. Further, determining whether the issue is contagious is worth noting, as that will help in putting the proper preventive or control methods for biosecurity and quarantine in place.

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This general guide explains common hoof issues, which can be referenced in the diagram showing hoof issues by claw zone (Illustration).

Hoof issues

1. Digital dermatitis

(Also referred to as hairy heel wart, Mortellaro’s disease, strawberry foot)

This infection occurs primarily in the digital space but may occur on dewclaws and corns as well and spread to the front of the hoof (top). Hairy, “wild” or dead flesh indicates older, more severe issues. The M-Stage scoring method is widely used to score lesions. These lesions can be very painful for the cow to walk, especially on straw, which may poke lesions. Treatment using a topical product with a wrap is recommended.

Because digital dermatitis is highly contagious, higher biosecurity and/or quarantine practices are recommended to prevent spread. Using a footbath and topical with ingredients such as copper sulphate and zinc sulphate, known to improve hoof (claw and skin) hard keratin, are also recommended.

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To prevent: Clean well, maintain good housing hygiene (scrape dry, crusted manure around barn, behind feeding alley curbs and backs of stalls; then disinfect), run a good footbath program and ensure room for fresh manure to cycle with hoof shaping/trimming. Remove manure from holding areas and alleys.

2. Foot rot

Occurs in the interdigital space and works its way further into the hoof rapidly. It is very painful for the cow to place weight on an infected hoof, thus causing difficulty walking. When infection occurs deeply, foot rot can affect ligaments, which leads the hoof to feel flimsy to touch (almost like muscle deterioration inside). It usually gives off a foul smell, and fleshy tissue is visible inside the cleft (where the bacteria initially entered). To control and prevent foot rot, focus on cleanliness and good hygiene (scrape dry, crusted manure around barn; then disinfect), run a good footbath program and practice good hoof shaping and trimming. Some cases may require antibiotics such as tetracycline powder (consult vet and/or hoof trimmer).

3. Interdigital fibromas (corns)

These occur in the interdigital space, most notably as a bulge of infected tissue between the inside of the claws. In some cases, a vet may amputate the lesion and treat. Topical hoof gel, a good footbath program and maintaining hygiene (keep clean and dry) are recommended.

4. White line

Axial fissures and cracks may denote white-line disease. (Note: Cracks not depicted in illustration.) Removing hoof where the white-line separation occurs is recommended. Again, using a footbath with ingredients such as copper sulphate and zinc sulphate, known to improve hoof hard keratin, are recommended to build claw strength.

5. Heel erosion

Occurs on the heels of hooves. The dead hoof has layers that create pockets in which manure and bacteria can get stuck, leading to a greater chance of an infection getting into the dermis. It is often seen with use of harsh chemicals that can cause burning in footbaths, such as formaldehyde. When trimming, it is recommended to remove this dead tissue.

TIP: Cutting too deep may create a new entry site for bacteria while removing heel erosion.

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6. Laminitis (Coriosis)

Mechanical form: from walking on hard surfaces (or going from pasture to cement). The corium becomes irritated, causing accelerated hoof growth. Shifts in weight bearing at sites of irritation cause higher probabilities of injury and hoof disease, particularly sole (and toe) ulcers and abscesses. This issue affects the entire hoof. Laminitis is non-discriminate to one claw zone. Using a footbath with ingredients known to improve hoof hard keratin such as copper sulphate and zinc sulphate are recommended.

7. Sole ulcers, toe ulcers, abscesses, hemorrhages

These are often a result of laminitis, due to the shift of outer weight bearing, which enables new contact points between hoof (weight) and floor. Sole ulcers are found on the inner side of outer hooves, primarily on the back feet because more weight is borne on back outer hooves. Cows with these particular issues do not want to place pressure/pain on the problem area. Due to overcompensation of weight on the new contact point on hoof (from the cow avoiding pressure/pain from initial issue), a new issue will often start.

Cows lifting a foot is often a sign of an ulcer or abscess. It is recommended to cut into hoof claw and drain to remove pressure (immediate relief), then glue a block to the hoof without an issue (sometimes this takes block modification and creativity). Nutrition (protein ratios), lactation (hormones) and the environment (cement/hard flooring and improper grooving) are all potential factors influencing these issues. Using a footbath with ingredients such as copper sulphate and zinc sulphate, known to improve hoof hard keratin, are recommended.

8. Toe-tip necrosis

This is described as very painful, dead tissue in the toes of hooves and is seen primarily in cattle feedlots. It most often results from cattle reaching for feed (standing on toes and leaning them into the cement feed curb). A common sign of this issue is a cow that walks “three-legged” to avoid any weight on the intense pain in the hoof. It is recommended to remove all dead/necrotic tissue with amputation and drain to prevent any dead tissue or bacteria from remaining inside the hoof. Where this issue is seen or prevalent in a herd, the feed needs to be pushed more often to prevent reaching and leaning in over the feedbunk curb.

Note: Most issues occur on the back outer part of hooves (where most weight-bearing is endured).

Other issues not illustrated

Corkscrew

This occurs when a hoof grows with a spiral-type shape. Note, however, overgrown hooves that begin to curve are not necessarily a corkscrew hoof. There is evidence that corkscrew hooves are a result of genetic predisposition (an inheritable trait). It is recommended to regularly maintain these hooves with good hoof-trimming knowledge of proper angles to bear weight to ensure good wear and walking. Also, it is good to have a good pair of nippers, especially for the overgrown hooves. Hoof trimming may not stop the hoof from growing like a corkscrew, but it can help to correct the issue with maintenance.

Joint problems

Cow stance, swelling or visual injury may be evident. Housing/stalls (small dimensions) may also cause bowlegged (pigeon-toed) or cow-hocked (splay-footed) stance, which causes uneven balance and strain on the tarsal joint. A hock injury will fill with pus and can be drained and cleaned. (Iodine can be used when ruptured, if necessary.)

Tendon and ligament issues

An issue with a tendon or ligament can arise as a result of an injury; however, if there is a strain on the tendons/ligaments, this could also be a result of improper hoof trimming or worn-down (soft) hooves. If the tendon or ligament is tight or overextended while walking or injured, a cow will potentially walk with a limp. A vet may be required in some cases – to make an incision, to release a strained ligament or tendon.

Soft hooves

When hooves are soft, they wear down quickly, which affects hoof angles and walking. The hoof loses the structural integrity required to support the weight of a large animal. This is often seen in new barns where cows are walking on new cement or aggressive floor grooving. It is recommended to avoid maintenance hoof trimming months prior to moving cows onto new cement, allowing some extra growth to wear down. Start a footbath program right away. Use a footbath that contains ingredients such as copper sulphate and zinc sulphate to improve hoof keratin. Nutrition and wet barn floors may also influence hoof hardness. It is recommended to run a scraper often (eight to 12 times per day).

Injury

Some hoof and/or joint issues are fairly unavoidable, such as injuries or rocks penetrating the hooves (especially on pasture). Cows will recover on their own from most injuries, if not severe – although always inspect the injury to tend to it, since cows try to disguise their pain. Rocks need to be picked out of the hooves with a hoof knife. Avoid forceful handling for your own safety and the cows’ safety. Consider housing and stall sizes when renovating, expanding or building a new barn. Practice good animal welfare practices and call your veterinarian when required.

Cracks and peeling

Cracks and peeling usually occurs as a result of a nutritional deficiency or due to the environment. (Recycled sand bedding is often the culprit.) Using a footbath that contains ingredients such as copper sulphate and zinc sulphate to improve hoof keratin is recommended. Also, discuss this with your nutritionist.  end mark

Note: In Canada, it is required to have a veterinarian prescribe antibiotics such as tetracycline and administer pain medication or local anesthesia for amputation. As per proAction, it is now also a requirement to document cows treated for lameness. Furthermore, new regulations limit/restrict transport of lame cows to auction or slaughter.

Kayla Pecora
  • Kayla Pecora

  • Agriculture Specialist
  • FloChem Ltd.
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