Treatment Practices Can Reduce Lameness In Dairy Cattle

Arturo Gomez Rivas, University of Wisconsin ( Acute active digital dermatitis lesions can cause pain and lameness in cattle, which leads to declines in animal welfare and food production.
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Lameness is one of the most common debilitating health issues for dairy cattle. About 23% of dairy cattle will be affected with lameness during their lifetime, according to University of Wisconsin veterinarian Nigel Cook.

He says there are three types or causes that lead to most dairy lameness issues: digital dermatitis, sole ulcers and white line disease.
Thin soles and toe ulcers also appear to be increasing in some operations, particularly in first-lactation heifers, but Cook says prevention efforts for the top three lesions could have a significant impact on dairy welfare and performance.

In a Bovine Veterinary 2019 article (, Cook lists the research-based factors shown to reduce lameness risk in dairy cattle. They are:
•    Less standing time on concrete
•    Deep bedded comfortable stalls rather than mats or mattresses
•    Less restrictive neck rail locations, low rear curb heights and absence of lunge obstructions
•    Wider Stalls
•    Use of manure removal systems other than automatic scrapers
•    Use of non-slippery, non-traumatic flooring rather than slats.
•    Access to pasture or outside exercise lot
•    Use of a divided feed barrier rather than a post and rail system
•    Wider feed alleys
•    Access to a trip chute for treatment and use of an effective foot-bath program
•    Prompt recognition and treatment of lameness

Hygiene, genetics, nutrition and facilities all play a role in prevention of digital dermatitis at all life stages, Cook says. Foot baths using copper sulfate (2 to 10%) or formaldehyde (4 to 6%) provide a key prevention tool. For stewardship reasons, Cook advises against using antibiotics in foot baths. The bath should be long enough for two to three immersions per foot, ideally around 10 to 12 feet long and two feet wide. As long as solutions are prepared to the proper concentrations and changed frequently, the length of the bath has a greater impact on efficacy than changing the solution.

Cook lists these best management practices for footbaths:
•    Use a well-designed footbath with adjacent mixing facilities.
•    Provide a footbath at four milkings per week and adapt based on outcome to achieve a minimum frequency to maintain control.
•    Use an antibacterial with evidence of efficacy against DD and footrot. Mix formalin at a concentration no higher than 6% and avoid using it in cold weather. Acidify the solution to a pH no lower than 3.0.
•    Use the solution as long as it is effective, generally 150 to 300 cow passes.
•    Do not forget to include all life stages of the cow.
•    White line disease typically occurs with poor flooring and poor handling, Cook says, with animal handling especially critical.

Some dairies with poor to marginal flooring avoid problems with white line disease by focusing on good handling practices including observing flight zones and balance points.

With proper management, Cook says, research shows dairies can achieve high milk production while minimizing lameness. In a recent survey of 66 elite Wisconsin herds, researchers identified the incidence of these housing and management characteristics:
•    Deep, loose bedded stalls: 70%
•    Two-row stall layout for pen: 61%
•    Headlocks at the feedbunk: 83%
•    Solid floors (versus slats): 100%
•    Manual manure removal from alleys (versus scraper): 73%
•    Rubber freestall alley flooring: 5%
•    Rubber parlor flooring: 68%
•    Fans over resting areas: 96%
•    Outside access: 9%
•    Trim cows’ feet at least once per lactation: 88%
•    Footbath frequency: Average of 4.5 times per week

Cook encourages veterinarians to help clients collect and use records on lameness incidence, types and severity of lesions, and apply the information toward genetics, management and facilities decisions.

The American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) also has reference materials that address treating lameness in dairy cattle. Earlier this month, AABP updated its fact sheet on sole ulcer.

“We periodically review and update the fact sheets on our committee page of the AABP website to ensure that they are up-to-date,” explains AABP Lameness Committee Chair Dr. Sarah Wagner. “This new version of the sole ulcer factsheet includes new images and describes the latest understanding of the multiple factors that contribute to the development of lesions of the sole in dairy cows.”

The fact sheet covers the pathogenesis, prevention, treatment and aftercare of sole ulcers in dairy cattle. It also includes photos and a diagram of the bovine claw anatomy.

It can be found at See more Lameness Committee fact sheets at
For more on preventing and addressing lameness in cattle, see these articles on BovineVetOnline:

Lame Genetics Make Lame Cows

Lameness Can Come Back

Canadian Study Suggests More than Half of Lameness Goes Undetected