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Exploring Cattle Lameness: Causes, Identifying, and Management Tactics

March 1, 2024

Howard Blalock, PhD

Vice President of Technical Services

Cattle lameness causes significant concerns in feedlot cattle and can have significant impacts on performance.  Understanding the causes and mechanisms to limit the impact is important to managing cattle.  Common causes of cattle lameness are laminitis, foot rot and/or digital dermatitis (DD).


Generally not foot specific and without significant swelling.  Depending on the severity, laminitis can lead to ulcers and bleeding from the sole of hoof and be very painful.  Heavy breathing, sweating, and/or reluctance to stand or walk may also be observed.  Laminitis is diet related by which an excessively acidic ruminal environment is created.  The presence of laminitis suggests either the ration is not properly balanced, bunk management is poor, cattle are not properly transitioned to higher concentrate diets, poor ration mix, and/or an error in the ration being fed.  In the case of laminitis, prevention is the cure.

Foot Rot

Characterized by rapid, symmetrical swelling at the upper limit of the hoof, typically accompanied by elevated temperature and reduced feed intake.  The skin between the toes become necrotic and produce a particularly foul smell.  This condition produces considerable pain and lameness in affected animals.  It is caused by a bacterial infection of tissue between the toes.  Wet and muddy pen conditions along with uneven, rough pen surfaces are contributing factors to the development of foot rot.  The infection typically responds well to labeled use of antibiotics and sulfa drugs as well as footbaths. Providing a high-quality vitamin and mineral program, including the use of organic trace minerals, is also helpful in the management of foot rot. If swelling persists beyond a day or two post-treatment, a veterinarian should be consulted.

Digital Dermatitis

Digital Dermatitis (DD) is a growing cause of lameness affecting feedlot cattle.  It is caused by a bacterial infection primarily affecting the heels of cattle.  Lesions may or may not be present with disease but the performance impacts appear to be significant with or without lesions.  A variety of anaerobic bacterial species are believed to be involved with a consistent involvement from the Treponema group of bacteria.  There is still a significant amount to be learned about DD but it does appear that wet, muddy conditions appear to be a significant contributing factor to the development of disease.  Antibiotic use has shown limited effectiveness at managing DD.  Regular use of formalin or copper sulfate footbaths has shown the greatest potential for controlling disease but not a lot of effectiveness at completely curing DD.  Use of a combination of organic zinc, copper and iodine in combination with the above, have shown beneficial in helping to control disease.

All 3 causes of lameness can have significant impacts on cattle performance.  Each can be related to management as well, bunk/ration management in the case of laminitis and pen/nutrition management relating to foot rot and DD.  Consistent bunk and pen management (mounds, bedding, scraping, rubber, etc..) should be at the top of every manager’s list of priorities to help control cattle lameness.  A high-quality vitamin and trace mineral package, including the use of organic minerals, can be the difference in maintaining foot health, it is not a silver bullet.  Proper maintenance of pen conditions is critical to limit the impacts of foot rot and DD.  Sometimes Mother Nature makes it very difficult to accomplish this but taking steps to do the best we can will benefit the cattle in the long run.

With questions or to ensure that you are doing what you can for your cattle nutritionally to help manage lameness, contact your QLF representative.

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