Lameness is a response to pain. There are many underlying causes, some are contagious; spreading from an infected animal to another and some are environmental, where management and housing can affect incidence.

Animals in pain are not only a serious welfare issue but more likely to underperform, affecting feed intake, body condition and liveweight gain. Directly impacting fertility, milk yield and animals are more likely to leave the farm due to injury or be unfit to travel.

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Understanding the different causes is fundamental to controlling and preventing problems.

Incidence of lameness varies greatly from farm to farm, so it is possible to control and manage but it requires investment of time, facilities and planning.

Breed in resilience

There are more lame cows in certain breeds. Dairy-bred animals can have higher lameness. Conformation, foot symmetry and balance will increase the risk of certain causes, like soler ulcers and white line disease. Bulls with bad feet and conformation will tend to breed heifers with bad feet.

Get rid of problems

Cattle and sheep that have been treated for lameness but haven’t cured shouldn’t stay on the farm. If they are carrying an infectious cause of lameness, they will spread infection to others. Chronic lame animals are a welfare concern and at a higher risk of injury, or unable to leave the farm as unfit for transport. Animals that are fit to travel should be transported direct to local slaughter, otherwise humanely destroyed on farm.

Protect clean herds/flocks

Some herds are still free of digital dermatitis and flocks free of foot rot and CODD. Purchasing infected animals is the most likely cause of introducing these infections. If these infections get on to a clean farm with no immunity, infection can spread rapidly with serious lesions which can be more difficult to treat.


Most cattle in Scotland are housed for at least part of the year, some excellent sheds have been built but others are outdated and not ideal for more modern larger breeds. Straw yards can be excellent winter housing, but availability of cheap good quality straw often results in less than ideal environment.

Poorly managed straw yards will result in a higher incidence of foul of the foot and the perfect conditions for the spread of contagious digital dermatitis. Deep-litter systems using woodchip or other recycled material can also work well but must be well managed. Care must be taken sourcing these materials, some woodchip batches have sharp processed metal which can damage the soles of cattle feet.

Cubicle sheds are very common, high initial investment but cheaper to maintain longer term. Sizing and design are very important to enable cattle to use them correctly. As a rule of thumb, 90% of cattle using a cubicle should be lying down. Perching in a cubicle, with back feet in the dung passage, overloads the hind feet and spends more time with their feet in the slurry. Resulting in a risk of soler ulcers, dermatitis and foul.


Cows prefer to stand and lie in a clean and dry environment. Slurry management varies greatly from slatted passageways, automatic scrapers, scraper tractors and robotic systems. Always be aware of high stocked areas, cross passageways and around water troughs which might not get cleaned as often.

Routine trimming

Prevention is the key to all lameness problems. Cattle benefit from twice yearly trimming, peak lactation and dry off, or turnout and housing. Lameness in sheep on the other hand has been shown to increase if feet are routinely trimmed. Foot shears can spread infection amongst a flock and damage the feet of sound sheep.

Treat early

It has been shown in studies but also common sense, the sooner lame animals are treated, the quicker their recovery and less likely to become a chronic case which needs culled.

Routine foot-bathing

It is good practice to foot-bath sheep after every handling. This will treat scald and reduce the risk of becoming infected with foot rot or CODD. Foot bathing is ineffective at treating sheep already infected with foot rot or CODD.

Dairy and beef herds with digital dermatitis must be foot bathed regularly to control infection throughout the year. Cows already lame due to dermatitis should be treated individually.

Any footbath must be managed correctly, kept clean and animals must have a clean dry standing on exit.

Injectable antibiotics

The most effective treatments for sheep with foot rot and CODD are injectable antibiotics, prescribed by your Veterinarian Surgeon.

However, most cattle lameness DOES NOT require injectable antibiotics – early intervention, lifting the foot and treating the cause, will reduce the need to use injectable antibiotics. Cheaper and more responsible.

Good handling facilities

We are much more likely to lift a cow’s foot if there are convenient, safe facilities that are easy to use, including a permanent footbath. A small amount of investment will make things easier on man and beast.

Mobility scoring

Dairy farms with supermarket contracts will be familiar with Mobility Scoring where cattle are graded from 0-3 depending on their lameness/mobility. The most beneficial reasons to score your herd are to track your herds progress and to identify herds with lameness issues, triggering intervention. This can be a useful tool to drive down lameness.


Targeted vaccination against foot rot in sheep helps both treat and prevent this condition. Getting a specific diagnosis is important before committing to this cost-effective programme.

Lameness is both a serious welfare concern and economic cost on our farms. Good stocksmanship, routine prevention and early diagnosis and treatment are the cornerstones to success.