Most animals on the farm will be lame at some time or other, especially the animals that live to a good age like horses, ponies, donkeys, dairy cows, pet goats, and sheep. 

Lameness has got to be treated, otherwise, the affected animal will not be able to get about to graze effectively, it may be bullied and it will lose weight.  And because lameness is often associated with pain, it’s usually an animal welfare problem – another good reason for dealing with it right away. . 

There are many possible causes of lameness, but for many types, the earlier treatment is given the more likely it is to result in a permanent cure. 

This Part One is the first in a series of three articles about lameness in livestock, and it will help you decide which leg is affected – or which legs!

In Part Two we will be reviewing the main causes of lameness in horses, ponies, and donkeys and how to treat and prevent lameness in these animals. 

Part Three reviews the main causes of lameness in sheep, goats, cattle, and deer, and how to treat and prevent lameness in these animals. 

Part One:  Which leg? 

Most lameness or uneven gait is caused by pain – a reluctance to bear weight on a limb because it’s painful.  The pain might be in the foot, in a joint, one of the supporting bones, or in the muscles.

  • Recognising which leg is affected can be very tricky when the lameness is mild.
  • It is often easiest to tell when the animal is trotting. 
  • The lame animal will usually nod (i.e. lower its head more heavily) on every second stride at the trot. 

Front leg lameness

  •  If a front leg is sore, the animal will nod more heavily when the sound leg is on the ground.  For example, if it’s the right (off) fore that is sore, and the animal is trotting, it will nod more heavily when its left (near) fore is on the ground.

Hind leg lameness

  • If it’s a hind leg that’s sore, it’s often more difficult to tell which one. 
  • Most people interpret nodding in relation to the front feet hitting the ground.  However at the trot when a front leg is on the ground it’s at the same time as the hind leg diagonally opposite is on the ground. 
  • This means that an animal with a sore hind leg nods when the front leg on the same side as the sore hind leg is on the ground. 
  • For example, if its right hind leg is sore, the animal will nod more heavily when the right front (and left hind) leg is on the ground. 

Lameness in more than one leg

  • If more than one leg is affected, sorting out which legs are involved gets even trickier! 
  • If both front feet are sore, the animal may stand rocked back so that most of its weight is on its hind legs.  This is often the case with ponies and donkeys that have laminitis (founder).
  • Sheep and goats may graze in a kneeling position if a front foot is sore, and especially if both are sore.

Other ways of detecting lameness

  • Often there is a thickening or swelling and heat at the site of an injury, so gently feeling down all the legs concentrating on the joints and tendons, and comparing the sound legs with the sore leg may give a clue to the site of any injury.
  • In many types of arthritis, the affected joints are enlarged and they may be hot and painful.
  • When a tendon has been injured it is usually puffy and painful when you gently feel along the length of it.
  • Generally, an animal with a sore leg will rest the leg with the tip of the foot on the ground when standing.
  • With severe lameness, it will hold the affected leg off the ground completely. 
  • Lameness in the feet might be more obvious when the animal is walking or trotting on a hard surface rather than on soft ground. 
  • The lameness may be more evident when the animal sets off after it’s been standing or lying for a while, and it might improve a little as the animal moves.  Some types of joint problems such as arthritis can be like this.
  • The lame animal may spend more time lying down; it may be reluctant to move about. 

It often takes an expert to identify the site of the problem in cases of mild lameness and lameness affecting more than one leg.

If an animal is very lame, it will be in a lot of discomforts and it will probably be in pain.  It will be reluctant to move and to eat, it will be miserable and it will lose weight.  If you can’t deal with it effectively yourself, you must call a vet.

Also in this series

Lameness part 2 - Lameness in horses, ponies and donkeys

Lameness part 3 - Lameness in sheep, goats, cattle and deer