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Vet Advice: Spot and treat foot rot early

foot rot in cattle

Foot rot is an acute and highly infectious disease of cattle characterized by swelling and lameness. The condition is extremely painful. If not treated promptly, the infection invades other structures in the foot including bones, joints and tendons, complicating treatment and delaying recovery. Foot rot originates between the claws of the hoof. It is more common during wet periods like mid-winter and early summer, and can affect any class of cattle at any time.

Foot rot on range can be especially troublesome because of the difficulty in mustering cattle for treatment and is a particularly serious condition in breeding bulls. It not only physically affects a bull’s ability to breed, but the increase in body temperature, pain and stress associated with foot rot often suppresses sperm production for an extended period of time. Unless treated very early, foot rot often spells the end of a breeding season for a bull.

Several things need to happen for animals to get foot rot:

  • First and foremost, the interdigital space (skin between the claws) is compromised by wet, abrasive environmental conditions, such as those around watering spots on pasture, wet corrals and rough, frozen ground in the spring and fall wherever cattle gather. Cattle grazing on harvested crops can also suffer interdigital injuries. Skin damage provides a portal for bacteria to enter the tissue of the foot.
  • Bacteria associated with foot rot need to be present. Fusobacterium necrophorum is typically the bacterium causing foot rot. It invades tissue and creates decay. F. necrophorum is a very common organism and can be found anywhere cattle are found. Fusobacterium can be coupled with other bacteria commonly found in the gut and feces, decreasing the number of F. necrophorum necessary to initiate infection and produce toxins. Toxins stimulate bacterial multiplication, cause tissue damage and promote progression of infection deeper into the foot.
  • Wet, abrasive conditions.

The incidence of foot rot varies according to the weather, season and grazing conditions. Foot rot represents approximately 20 per cent of all lamenesses diagnosed in cattle.

Symptoms include:

  • Pain, sudden lameness with swelling of the interdigital space and the coronary band (hoof/skin junction).
  • Fever, loss of condition, reduced milk production (dairy cattle), loss of appetite and resulting loss of gain (beef cattle).
  • Bulls are reluctant to move and may be unable to breed, especially if a hind limb is involved.
  • Necrosis (tissue death) of the interdigital space accompanied by a foul odour.
  • Without treatment, infection extends to surrounding tissues. Bones of the digit and joints become involved. Chronic arthritis of affected joints is common.

Not all causes of lameness at the level of the foot are foot rot. Sole, tendon and muscle injuries can cause lameness. Sole abscesses require trimming and debridement. Fibromas (corns) that form between the digits cause significant lameness. Sand cracks frequently cause lameness in cattle on pasture. Laminitis (founder) also occurs. It is essential that lameness be properly diagnosed. Your veterinarian can help.

Most cases of foot rot require treatment with appropriate antibiotics. Many common antimicrobials are effective in treating foot rot; all now require a veterinary prescription. Treatment should always begin with cleaning and examining the foot to confirm that lameness is actually due to foot rot. While some very mild cases will respond to topical therapy and supportive care only, most cases require the use of systemic antimicrobial therapy. Sustained release antibiotics may be indicated when treating cattle on pasture.

Your veterinarian may also recommend use of an anti-inflammatory drug like meloxicam or Banamine. More aggressive treatment options need to be considered if deeper structures in the foot are involved including claw amputation and fusion of affected joints.

Prevention and control of foot rot involves increased vigilance during wet, humid conditions. Focus attention to areas where cattle congregate. These areas are often crowded and very wet with high bacterial counts.

A commercially available vaccine against foot rot may reduce the incidence of infection. Vaccination is often recommended for breeding bulls where the cost associated with disease is greatest. Talk to your veterinarian for updated information on treatment and prevention. Generally, the best offense is a good defense. Centre preventive measures on limiting mechanical damage to the foot caused by sharp gravel, brush and stubble. Minimize the time cattle must spend standing in wet areas with high bacterial counts. Adequate dietary zinc and iodine should be provided in the form of well-balanced trace mineral programs.

Take-home messages

Foot rot is a costly, frustrating animal health condition all cattle operations potentially face. The extra labour and expense in dealing with foot rot in confinement and on pasture never goes away. Keep in mind that it is necessary to have a break in skin integrity for foot rot to occur. Early detection and treatment is the key to successful management of the disease. Response to treatment is generally good. A proper diagnosis to rule out other causes of lameness is important. Foot rot in bulls during the breeding season can be costly, making early intervention even more important. Vaccination of bulls against foot rot is worth considering. Feeding a well-balanced diet with appropriate trace minerals is key in prevention. Consult with your veterinarian regarding a prevention program for your farm.

Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen or the WCABP.

About the author


Dr. Ron Clarke

Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).



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