by: Stephen B. Blezinger
Ph.D., PAS

Lameness in cattle can be a serious production and economic problem. There are many causes for lameness. It is important that the problem be diagnosed correctly and treated quickly to minimize economic losses. While small injuries to feet and hooves are common, if allowed to progress the losses can become extensive.

Consider some of the economic and performance survey data: A review of records from several large feed yards showed approximately 2.1 percent of the cattle in these yards (of almost two million animals) were treated for lameness. Accurate estimates for losses in pasture cattle are difficult to come by. Lame cattle accounted for 70 percent of all sales of non‐performing cattle. Subsequently the price received for these salvaged lame animals was only 53 percent of the original purchase price. While lame cattle in this set of records were sold, on average, 85 days after their arrival, they weighed, on average, only 10 pounds more than their in‐weights. The NCBA National Quality Audits identify lameness in over 15 percent of culled cows and over 30 percent of culled bulls.

Causes of Lameness and Foot and Hoof Issues

Diseases of the feet account for approximately 70 percent of all cases of lameness. Other causes include injuries to the upper skeleton or major muscles (15 percent), septic joints (12 percent) and injection site lesions (three percent). The incidence of each cause varies by season, cattle source, environmental and facility management, and cattle handling. Accurate diagnosis is the key to successful treatment and prevention of future cases. Since most lameness involves the feet, the foot must be picked up and directly examined for proper evaluation and diagnosis. Never medicate the animal before making a proper diagnosis. Most foot diseases on the ranch are initially caused by mechanical injuries from handling equipment, sole penetration or hoof cracking from excessive wear (toe abscesses) or infection (foot rot). In these cattle hoof wall disease associated with genetics and/or nutrition is also a common finding. So understand that it may not just result from infection or injury.

Foot Rot

While Foot Rot (FR) is the most commonly diagnosed cause of lameness in all cattle, it actually accounts for less than 10 percent of the confirmed cases of lameness. Foot Rot is most often noted one to two weeks after the soft tissue between the toes has sustained some type of mechanical damage or injury. The mechanical damage may come from dried pasture stubble, frozen mud spikes, etc. Producers should be especially careful during the first two weeks after fall weaning when calves are coming from dried pastures, and during the first two weeks after the temperature drops below freezing following a wet period. Foot Rot can be easily and successfully treated. To properly diagnose FR, pick up the foot and examine the soft tissue between the toes. In FR cases, the soft tissue between the toes will be swollen and smell very bad. Foot Rot is best treated with long-acting antibiotics. Topical medications are typically of very little value. Foot Rot seldom affects only a few animals in a group and the producer must be on guard for other cases to develop from the same set of cattle. Prevention of FR can be very difficult. However, many producers have used elevated iodine levels in feed or mineral supplements with uncertain results. The level of iodine approved for feeding (10 mg/head/day) is not considered therapeutic. Feeding higher levels has been shown helpful but research suggests that high levels (50-250 mg/hd/day) of iodine fed for 15-17 weeks can interfere with some immune function tests. Also, there is evidence that feeding increased Zinc levels can also help with FR prevention. Some research has shown that zinc methionine or other zinc complexes (organic or chelates) in the ration or in supplements may have some value in preventing FR.

Toe Abscesses

Cattle coming from lush pastures are prone to toe abscesses. These abscesses are caused by a sole penetration that leads to an infection under the hoof wall. The hoof is soft and easily worn down into the sensitive tissues, especially in the toe area. The outside front toe is usually the most severely affected. The outside rear toe is the next most common location for this problem. Fall weaned calves, cattle coming from parts of the country with high annual rain fall (i.e. the South and Southeast), and cattle coming from small grain pastures in the spring are most likely to have problems with toe abscesses. Wild cattle, abrasive surfaces, and rough handling of the cattle often combine to create this problem. If toe abscesses are a problem in some receiving pens and dirt lots, i.e., the receiving areas may be too “clean,” lacking a pad of loose dirt and manure. Dirt and dried manure provide a cushion to the hoof. Some operations may have a problem with toe abscesses after rains have washed the cushion away.

Early symptoms of toe abscesses may be difficult to detect. The cattle will initially appear sore-footed. The foot is not swollen in the early stages. Nearly all animals treated properly at this stage will recover. If the disease progresses, the animal will become noticeably lame. The animal may hold the most severely affected foot up, and if the disease continues to progress, a slight swelling may be noticed at the top of the hoof. When the animals are taken to the hospital area, the feet must be picked up and examined. When pressing with the thumb on the side at the end of the toe, a soft area should be noted. There may also be a crack between the hoof wall and the sole. There should be no swelling between the toes. Swelling between the toes is a predominant sign of FR, and is unrelated to toe abscesses. Beef producers often make the mistake of treating all lame cattle for FR or upper leg injuries when toe abscesses may be part of the problem. If toe abscesses are not treated in time the toe will have to be amputated or the animal sold for salvage. Toe abscesses are treated by trimming the end of the hoof just enough to relieve the pressure inside the hoof caused by the infection. If the animal bleeds when you trim the end of the hoof, you have trimmed too much. In addition to trimming, animals should be treated with a long-acting antibiotic. Antibiotics alone will solve the problem; the hoof must be trimmed.

Mechanical Injuries

Hoof or foot injuries are another cause of lameness. They are most often caused by poorly designed or maintained pens or working facilities. Also, debris left in pastures or pens can cause injuries. For example, an animal's toe can be caught in the space between the ground and the wall in crowding facilities or if wood with nails protruding are left lying around and cattle can step on these. Mechanical injuries should not be left to heal on their own. A minor injury can become a severe local infection which can cause loss of animal performance. Mechanical injuries vary widely and are best prevented by well-designed and maintained facilities as well as good housekeeping of pastures and pens.

Swollen Joints

Swollen joints are linked to about 10 to 15 percent of all cases of lameness. These usually fall into three categories; an infection that settles in the joint after an animal has a generalized infection; an injury to a joint and subsequent onset of inflammation; or an infection that develops in the joint after an infection in the foot was improperly treated. The most common joints involved are the front fetlock, the hock and the elbow. Stifle, hip and shoulder lameness is very rare in cattle although it can and does occur. Regardless of the cause of the swollen joint, the three most common isolated bacteria are Hemophilus somnus, Pasteurella multocida, and E. coli. While the bacteria are often sensitive to common antibiotics, treatment is often not overly effective and may require a consult with the vet. In some cases, sale for salvage is often the best option for animals with swollen joints.

Broken Bones

In the case of a broken bone, it is best to salvage the animal as soon as possible. If medication withdrawal time restrictions exist, and the fracture has not broken the skin, the animal may get along acceptably if kept in a small pen. In most cases, the cost of treating a broken bone proves excessively expensive unless the animal is of high genetic value. Commonly, the fracture will not heal on its own. If the animal has been on a medicated feed requiring a withdrawal time, keeping it in a small pen with feed, hay and water is advisable to allow to but it will allow the animal to clear the medication before marketing.

Muscle Damage

Significant muscle damage is common particularly in newly arrived cattle or cattle not accustomed to handling or working. Newly arrived cattle should be allowed to rest before processing to replenish the energy in their muscles. The animals should rest for as few as six hours but for no more than 72 hours. Muscle damage can often be traced to animal handling. It is very important to handle only small numbers of cattle at a time and handle them slowly and gently. Trying to rush movement or working/processing commonly results in injury to cattle. Also, muscle damage in grazing cattle and in the feedlot when “bulling” is an issue can be severe. It is important to be watching for bullers and to remove them from riding cattle as soon as they are observed.


The causes of lameness and foot and hoof problems in cattle are numerous and treatment may or may not be simple. Much of this can be avoided by careful management and handling, close observation of animals and development of good care and handling practices which focus on hoof and foot health.

Copyright 2016 – Dr. Stephen B. Blezinger. Dr. Steve Blezinger is a nutritional and management consultant with an office in Sulfur Springs, TX. He can be reached at (903) 352-3475 or by email at For more information please visit us at Facebook/Reveille Livestock Concepts.

Don't forget to BOOKMARK  
Cattle Today Online!