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Bovine soundness: Producers urged to monitor for lameness in pasture cattle

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

          “Lameness is something cattle producers battle year in and year out. It isn’t anything new and unusual. However, there are a lot of factors we can’t control that lead to increased lameness rates and the consequences of lameness can be significant,” says Kansas State University (KSU) Beef Veterinarian Dr. A.J. Tarpoff.

During an episode of KSU’s Agriculture Today podcast dated May 18, Tarpoff encourages producers to closely monitor their herds over the next few months to catch pasture lameness as quickly as possible.

“Whether we are in a feedlot, a stocker/backgrounder operation or a cow/calf operation, most cases of lameness lead to increased cull rates,” Tarpoff says. “There are some major losses associated with animals that can’t recover from lameness conditions.”

Foot rot

            Tarpoff notes one of the first lameness conditions coming to mind is foot rot.

            “One of the most common causes of lameness in pasture settings during the spring and summer months is foot rot,” he says. “But remember, not every lame animal in the pasture has foot rot, it is a very specific condition.”

            He goes on to explain foot rot is caused by the ubiquitous bacteria Fusobacterium necrophorum.

            “There has to be a breakdown of the protective barrier of the hoof, and it usually occurs between the two toes,” he says. “There is cracking and softening of the skin, especially in wet conditions. This abrasion to the protective barrier allows the bacteria to get inside and cause the infection.”

            Tarpoff notes similar to most cases of lameness, with foot rot there is obvious swelling.

            “When the bacteria gets under the skin and the bacterial infection begins, there is metric swelling all over the hoof. There will also be a very unique, pungent odor with foot rot,” he says.

            He points out treating foot rot with an injectable antibiotic is common and effective. He also notes a topical product for pain relief was recently released into the market and is labeled for foot rot in cattle.

Asymmetrical swelling

            Tarpoff notes not all lameness in cattle is foot rot. In fact, he says there can also be cases with asymmetrical swelling, which are completely different afflictions.

            “Animals with asymmetrical swelling will present very similarly to foot rot, which is why it is important to always get a good look at the feet and the joints to isolate where the lameness is coming from,” he states.

            “When I say asymmetrical swelling, I mean the inflammation is only on part of the foot, and this is generally associated with deeper structures of the feet and legs,” he adds.

            Where foot rot is a subcutaneous infection, Tarpoff explains asymmetrical cases typically involve underlying structures including bones, tendons and joints.

            “For these conditions, an aggressive treatment is needed as soon as possible. Treatment with an injectable antibiotic isn’t enough, so the success rate will be quite low,” he says.

            Therefore, Tarpoff encourages producers to work with their local veterinarian to find an aggressive treatment that will work effectively in their specific situation.


            Another form of lameness found in pasture cattle is abscess, according to Tarpoff.

            “Abscesses usually start with a stone bruise and just need time to drain and heal,” Tarpoff says. “To help with the pain we can also glue on a hoof block to take the pressure off of the infected hoof.”

            He notes there is another kind of abscess seen more commonly in stocker cattle, known as toe abscess.

            “Animals with toe abscesses will have a weird, shifting lameness, usually on their back end,” he explains. “They will be hunched up with their front legs splayed out and their back legs are usually crossed.”

            He continues, “In order to diagnose toe abscesses, we have to run them through the chute and pick up their feet. Once we have the foot in the air, we can use hoof testers to put pressure on both toes. Because it is an incredibly painful condition, once we apply pressure to the infected toe, the animal will pull away quickly.”

            Tarpoff explains once a foot has been diagnosed with a toe abscess, hoof clippers can be used to trim part of the toe off to relieve pressure.

            “If toe abscesses aren’t opened up properly, the chance of healing and success is almost none,” he states.

Septic arthritis

            The last condition resulting in lameness that Tarpoff discusses is septic arthritis, or joint swelling, in calves.

            “This is a condition where we will see obvious swelling, and the calf might even be packing a leg,” he says. “Septic arthritis attacks the big joints like the elbow or shoulder on the front legs and the hocks or the stifle on the back legs.”

            In weaned calves, Tarpoff says septic arthritis is usually instigated by the bacteria associated with bovine respiratory disease (BRD).

            “We usually see this after we get a fresh set of stocker calves, and one gets sick with pneumonia. We treat the calf, they respond really well, but two weeks later they will have this arthritis,” he explains.

            “We can usually treat them with injectable microbials but producers need to keep in mind it takes a long time for animals with septic arthritis to recover,” he adds. “Don’t give up on them. They just need a nice, quiet, bedded area to rest and recover, which might take up to a month or longer.”

            Hannah Bugas is the assistant editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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