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Foot rot in cattle possible in wet, muddy conditions

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Foot rot is an infectious condition that causes swelling, heat and inflammation in the foot, resulting in severe lameness. The swelling and lameness can come on gradually, but more often, it appears suddenly.

Andrew Niehaus, assistant professor of Farm Animal Surgery at Ohio State University, says the bacteria causing foot rot are generally present in the environment. The animals most at risk are those living in an unsanitary environment where there is a lot of manure. 

“We tend to see more cases in wet, muddy conditions.  Feet are constantly wet, which makes the skin softer, and it becomes easier for certain pathogens to penetrate that skin barrier,” he says. 

Any little nick, scrape or puncture around the hoof, heel or between the toes may open the way for opportunistic invaders.

Occurrence of foot rot

Even during a dry summer some cases appear, especially if cattle have to go through a boggy area to get to water or wade into the mud surrounding a pond when getting a drink. Mud mixed with manure make perfect conditions for foot rot.

“The organisms that cause foot rot are anaerobic, which means they thrive without oxygen,” Niehaus says. 

If the foot is down in the mud, there’s not much oxygen, and this makes perfect habitat for those pathogens. If cattle are wading through mud or standing in a muddy feedlot, they are at higher risk.

“The two organisms implicated in foot rot are Dichlobacter nodosus and Fusobacterium necrophorum. Both of these are anaerobic. They are somewhat symbiotic in that they may work together. One of them enters the break in the skin, and then the other one comes along and helps perpetuate the infection,” says Niehaus.

These bacteria multiply and cause further death and destruction of tissue in that area.  This leads to more anaerobic conditions as the tissue dies, which helps facilitate the infection in a vicious cycle.

“The early stages of disease are often seen in the interdigital space between the toes, and it may later involve the heel area, as well,” Niehaus explains. “As it becomes worse, swelling may spread up the leg, with noticeable swelling above the hoof.” 

Inflammation and swelling of the affected tissues are a hallmark of this disease.  The swelling and lameness may be similar to that of an animal suffering from a fracture or snakebite.


It is important to have a proper diagnosis, because several other things can look like foot rot. 

“It could be a fracture, a joint infection due to progressive infection from an ulcer in the bottom of the foot or a puncture wound. There may be swelling around the area of the coronary band in those instances, and it may break out there and drain.  Those are some of the differentials we should consider, when we see a swollen foot and a very lame animal,” he explains. 

Lameness could even be due to a nail or sharp stick embedded in the foot.

When making a diagnosis, it is important to look closely at the foot. 

“I like to put the animal on a tilt table if it’s been brought to the hospital. On a farm or ranch, it could be put into a chute and the foot lifted with a rope. Out in a pasture, the animal could be roped and cast. We need a good look at that foot,” he says.

“With foot rot, the diagnosis is usually based on the fact the animal has a lot of pain in the interdigital space.  It has a necrotic look and a very characteristic foul smell. If we ‘floss’ the interdigital space with a piece of twine or towel, pulling it back and forth, it is very painful for the animal. I frequently use this technique to make my diagnosis. Even just touching the affected area may be enough to elicit a painful reaction from the animal,” says Niehaus.


“The best way to cure the infection is to get the animals out of wet, dirty conditions.  Some cases will resolve on their own. We can hasten recovery with systemic antibiotics and local treatment like oxytetracycline bandage foot wraps,” Niehaus explains. 

“We can treat it locally by putting something like LA-200 on a gauze pad, wrap it and hold that next to the affected area. There are several good antibiotics labeled for foot rot, so we usually give the animal a systemic antibiotic, as well,” says Niehaus.

If caught early, the infection can usually be cleared up quickly.

“That’s another hallmark of this disease. It usually clears up pretty quickly if treated soon after it begins,” he says. 

By the second day following treatment, there should be noticeable improvement and less lameness. It may take longer if the animal was not seen in the beginning and treatment isn’t started until after it has been lame awhile.

Some cases clear up on their own, but others can become severe if neglected and may progress into the joint. 

“As it spreads through the soft tissue, it may go into the joint, as well.  Then it becomes more difficult to treat,” he says.

Once the infection gets into the joints, it starts destroying the cartilage.  Even if the rancher can eventually clean up the infection, which is much more difficult once it’s in a joint, they still may deal with an arthritic joint. 

Niehaus says, “That animal will still be lame, and we are faced with either slaughtering the animal or possibly amputating the toe – depending on the circumstances.   It pays to treat foot rot early.”

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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