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Lameness in Livestock - Part 3: Lameness in Sheep, Goats, Cattle and Deer

hoofPractically every farmer has to deal with lame livestock at some time or other.  It’s a common problem in goats and sheep, and it can be a problem in cattle.  Occasionally it’s a problem in deer. 

As with so many other farm animal health problems, it pays to deal with lameness early, and it’s even better to try to prevent it in the first place. 

This article will discuss the most common causes of lameness in sheep, cattle, goats and deer and how to deal with them.

The main causes of lameness in sheep cattle and goats:
  • In sheep, goats and cattle, most lameness is associated with infection in the foot or feet, and the most common types of infection are foot-scald and foot-rot. 
  • Foot-scald is a bacterial infection that is very painful. 
  • The skin between the two digits becomes reddened or blanched. 
  • Foot scald tends to develop suddenly when conditions underfoot are wet and there are a lot of animals in a small area. 
  • Untreated foot scald can progress to foot abscesses that are very difficult to treat.
  • Foot-rot is caused by another type of bacterium, and the infection is between the horn and the sensitive growing tissue that lies beneath it.  
  • The horn tends to separate from the underlying tissue with the gap becoming filled by dirt and smelly exudate.
  • Foot-rot is particularly likely when the horn is overgrown. 
  • Overgrown horn it tends to curl under the foot, trapping mud and predisposing to infection.   
  • In cows, a lot of lameness is caused by bruising to the sole of the feet and excessive wear of the horn of the toes, leading to painful infections.
  • In very young (unweaned) lambs, calves, goat kids and even foals, bacterial infections can cause painful swollen joints (a condition called “joint ill”). 
  • Joint ill is difficult to treat and requires veterinary treatment, the earlier the better.
 Prevention and treatment of foot problems in sheep, goats and cattle
  • Trim any over-grown horn from your sheep, goats and cattle (being careful not to draw blood).
  • To prevent foot infections and to treat early cases, put your livestock through a foot bath.
  • 10% zinc sulphate is best for the foot-bath.
  • Stand the animals in the foot-bath for 5 minutes, then on a hard surface like concrete for a while for the feet to dry before returning to the paddock. 
  • If foot-rot in sheep is a problem, your vet may vaccinate against it.  This can leave a lump at the vaccination site so discuss the pros and cons with your vet first.
  • If there is a persistent problem with foot-scald or foot-rot on your farm, you should consult a vet, as antibiotic treatment may be necessary.
  • If dairy cows are being brought in for milking twice a day, they should be allowed to walk slowly and quietly with time to place their feet carefully.  Hurrying them along rough tracks is a common cause of painful bruising in the feet.   
  • The tracks should be well-drained and free of stones.
  • Persistently lame cows require veterinary treatment. 

Lameness occurs occasionally in deer too. 

  • Deer can get foot-scald and foot-rot just as cattle and sheep can.
  • Foot injuries (especially on rough concrete surfaces) can lead to severe infections in the lower legs (cellulitis).

 Your vet will advise on prevention and treatment.


Not all gait abnormalities are caused by pain in the foot or leg: 

  • Mastitis can cause a awkward hind leg gait in sheep, goats and cattle.
  • In young sheep and cattle, selenium deficiency can sometimes cause stiffness of leg muscles.
  • In young deer, copper deficiency can lead to abnormalities in the spinal cord resulting in hind limb weakness and even paralysis (enzootic ataxia), and also a condition called osteochondritis dissecans, associated with joint problems and characterized by a bunny-hopping gait and creaky joints.
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