Lameness in dairy cattle requires proper care

Lameness shows up with a change in gait and involves a complex list of symptoms:


RED DEER — Lame dairy cows need immediate attention to prevent chronic problems.

“Lameness is not a disease. Lameness is a sign of pain and discomfort in the cow and it results in production losses,” said Karin Orsel, an epidemiologist and specialist in infectious diseases of cattle at the University of Calgary faculty of veterinary medicine.

Lameness is among the top three issues for cow health, so producers need strategies to prevent it from becoming a chronic condition. Cows that have previously gone lame are more at risk.

“Prevention of chronic lameness starts with early detection,” she said at the Western Canadian dairy seminar held in Red Deer March 6-9.

“If you only identify the cows that can hardly make it to the milk parlour, that is late,” she said.

“Lameness detection not only needs to be done regularly but more importantly, timely corrective actions must be taken,” she said.

Lame cows may have developed foot problems because of stall design, flooring, walking surface, stall management or bacteria. Breed, age, days in milk and body condition score also contribute.

Skinny cows with a body condition score of two or less are more susceptible. Mature cows, or those that have just freshened, may also develop problems.

“Know which cows are most likely to become lame so you can focus on that group because it is not always easy to detect,” she said.

A lame cow produces less milk. It may struggle to get pregnant and is more likely to be culled, which is a production loss.

Lame cows require special treatment and could receive medication like NSAIDs, proper hoof trimming or therapeutic hoof blocks, said Gerard Cramer of the University of Minnesota.

Hoof blocks are attached to the uninjured claw. This elevates the affected part and gives it a chance to heal.

One problem leading to lameness may not be obvious. The PIII bone in the foot may have been injured and could prolapse through the sole of the foot.

“It likely hurts because they are pushing down on these bones and this is sensitive tissue,” he said.

There is a pad of fat on the inside bottom of the foot and if it gets thin, lameness could result.

Inflammation mobilizes fat and can create minor bony changes in the claw capsule and the cow goes lame with sole ulcers. The thinner the fat pad inside the foot, the worse the problem seems to be.

Ultrasound can measure the thickness of the fat pad inside the foot.

“The thinner that is, the more likely the cow will get lesions,” he said.

“When that happens, the cow is walking and this bone is putting pressure on that tissue,” he said.

Since this is an inflammatory condition, producers should consider using NSAIDs to treat lame cows. The foot can be trimmed, a therapeutic foot block applied and a dose of an anti-inflammatory medication could help.

The foot also needs to be rechecked and it is wise to look at all four legs to make sure they are healthy.

The overall goal is to reduce the number of lame cows. Some studies are comparing techniques to help the cow most effectively as well as researching hoof trimming techniques to bring lameness under control or prevent it from happening.

“If I know this cow has a history of lameness, she needs a different trimming program and may need to be tended to more often,” he said.

The farm needs records to know what the specific problem is, lameness detection and how was it treated. The farm also needs someone at the dairy, whether it is the vet, owner, herdsman or nutritionist, who focuses on lameness among the cows.

Cattle lameness signs

Lameness shows up with a change in gait and involves a complex list of symptoms:

  • slow walking
  • increased stride duration
  • shorter strides
  • uneven weight distribution
  • smaller step angle
  • increased abduction
  • changed tracking distance
  • altered stride height
  • changes in joint flexion
  • inconsistent gait
  • posture head movement
  • arched back
  • changes in behaviour when resting, eating, ruminating or socializing

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