by: Carla L. Huston, DVM, PhD
ACVPM Beef Extension and Outreach Coordinator, College of Veterinary Medicine, Mississippi State University

If you raise cattle, at some point in time you will have to deal with lameness issues. Some causes of lameness, such as foot rot, can be easily treated on-farm if caught early. Other lamenesses can be more severe, requiring veterinary intervention and long-term follow-up. Sole ulcers were one of the top five reasons beef cattle were presented for treatment in a recent retrospective study from the Auburn University Large Animal Clinic. This month we will discuss how sole ulcers form, how to recognize ulcers and abscesses and what is involved in their treatment.

Sole ulcers are non-infectious lesions affecting the horn of cattle. They form from the loss of sole integrity due to abscesses formed between the horn and underlying tissue layers (laminae). The ulcers are visible as hemorrhagic lesions or holes in the surface of the horn, usually seen in the region of the sole and heel bulb junction. Sensitive laminae may be exposed through the damaged horn; in more severe cases granulation tissue may protrude through horn, having a cauliflower-like appearance.

Affected cattle will have a mild to moderate lameness of sudden onset. Sole ulcers commonly affect one or both lateral (outside) hind claws. If both rear claws are affected, the animal may shift weight on its legs while standing and have their hind limbs stretched back in an attempt to relieve pain. In these cases, it may be difficult to tell which limb is affected when observing the animal walking.

Compared to foot rot, swelling in the foot is usually not observed with sole ulcers unless deeper infection occurs. Left untreated, sole ulcers can progress to septic arthritis (joint infection) and osteomyelitis (bone infection).

There are many causes of sole ulcers in cattle. While toe ulcers are more commonly seen in high-yielding dairy cattle in confinement settings, sole ulcers are seen fairly frequently in beef cattle on pasture. Sole ulcers can be caused by laminitis (inflammation of the sensitive laminae) as a sequela to high concentrate diets. As laminitis softens the horn, we often see sole ulcers in feeder or other cattle who have not been properly acclimated to grain-based diets. Hard pasture ground (often as a result of drought or dry conditions) and rocky surfaces can lead to unbalanced weight-bearing and alterations in horn growth, increasing the risk of sole abscesses in beef cattle.

Laminitis also leads to increased horn formation, which increases sole thickness and causes abnormal growth which may mimic screw claw. Alteration of posture in response to these changes will exacerbate the condition. Similarly, improper hoof trimming, which leads to abnormal weight-bearing and pressure on the underlying dermal tissue, can also predispose an animal to sole abscesses. Research has shown that in dairy cattle, cows with higher body condition score (BCS) have less potential for ulcer development, possibly due to the composition and size of the digital cushion, the fat pad that absorbs the weight-bearing load on the bones and joints. A similar scenario is likely seen in beef cattle.

Treatment for sole ulcers should be aimed at relieving pressure from the affected c1aw(s) and removing damaged horn tissue. Given the extensive manipulation of the feet required to diagnose and treat sole abscesses, treatment in the field can be complicated and it is recommended that a foot trimming table or other method of limb restraint is used. The sole should be thoroughly cleaned and trimmed to remove the damaged horn and allow drainage of any abscesses. Corrective trimming of all feet is also necessary to balance weight-bearing. A wooden block can be applied to the healthy claw (usually the medial, or inside claw) to relieve weight-bearing and alleviate pain.

In most cases, bandaging of the affected claw is not indicated and may actually cause more harm than good. A bandage packed with antibiotic powder or ointment is needed only when sensitive tissues are exposed. Caution must be taken not to leave bandages on for any extended period of time because they are easily contaminated in the pasture environment.

Following treatment, the animal should be kept in a confined area or small paddock with easy access to feed and water. The area should provide good footing, preferably not on concrete or other hardened surfaces. If indicated, your veterinarian can also prescribe medications for pain relief. However, in most cases, the removal of damaged horn relieves the painful pressure and medications are not needed. Cattle affected with sole abscesses may experience chronic low grade lameness requiring corrective foot trims every three to four months.

Preventive hoof care includes providing good nutrition and performing regular foot trims. However, the economic benefit of routine foot trims in beef cattle has not been clearly demonstrated, and will likely vary among different management systems. Lameness results in serious economic losses in beef cattle due to decreased weight gain, weight loss, decreased fertility, cost of treatment, and early culling and decreased time in the herd. Lameness is also considered an important animal welfare concern. It is a fact that the environment in which we keep cattle largely determines diseases and conditions that are encountered. Foot problems are no different. While it is generally not possible to alter pasture environments, what we can do is observe our cattle often and treat promptly when problems arise. If you need further information on proper hoof care or treatment of lameness, contact your herd veterinarian or Extension livestock specialist.

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