Lameness – Prevention, detection, and treatment

Improving cow welfare and longevity by improving hoof health requires dedication and careful management decision-making but it is possible. Some studies show that expert advice helps farmers make management changes, which have a positive effect on decreasing lameness prevalence

(This article belongs to the proceedings from the Cow Longevity Conference 2013 that took place at Hamra farm, Sweden in August 2013)

Take home messages

1. Prevention of lameness will increase milk yields, cow welfare and quality of life and economics of the dairy.

2. Prompt detection and early treatment will decrease the time to recovery, prevent some premature culling, and improve cow comfort.

3. Monitoring lameness incidence and making management interventions will keep lameness at a lower level.

4. Proper claw trimming is an essential component of lameness control and cow comfort.

5. Stalls should be proper size for cows to enter, lie down, and exit easily.

6. Stalls should have deep and clean bedding.

7. All walking surfaces should be kept clean of manure accumulation and provide non-slip, comfortable walking surface for cows.

8. Footbaths should be properly maintained and cleaned at the appropriate times.

9. Monitoring lameness prevalence and response to interventions will help to keep lameness at an acceptable level.


Dairy cow lameness is a costly disease both in Euros and in cow welfare. The monetary costs of the disease are due to loss of milk yield, treatment costs, decrease in reproductive efficiency, and premature culling. Premature culling is probably the biggest cost of lameness. Culling and replacing dairy cows is complex and farm specific, e.g. a healthy 4th lactation cow will likely produce more milk than a 1st lactation cow regardless of superior genetic merit of the younger cow. The decision to replace a multiparous cow with a heifer also involves economic considerations such as depreciation and the heifer’s sale value vs. the sale value of the multiparous cow. In California, most dairy farms have a 30-40% annual culling rate, which doesn’t change much from well to not-so-well managed herds. The well-managed herds cull more cows “voluntarily” (for production reasons) and the culled cows are more likely to be sold for dairy purposes, and, thus receive a better price than cows sold for health reasons. The overarching purpose of this meeting is to ponder the question of longevity of the dairy cow. My task is to discuss hoof health in this regard.

Optimum hoof health involves a commitment to improving animal welfare and economics of the dairy. On each dairy, a good stockman should be responsible for observing cows for clinical lameness and making sure that they get treated promptly. If the hoof trimmer is on the dairy often (weekly), then it is possible for lame cows to wait a few days for treatment but if the trimmer only comes once a month or less then someone on the dairy should be responsible for treating lame cows. Having a proper trimming chute and adequate equipment on the premises will make treating lame cows easier and safer for both the personnel and the cows. A recent study of management and lameness on dairies in British Columbia, California, and northeastern USA found differences in dairy facilities and management in the 3 areas and also found that each of the areas had farms with low prevalence of lameness. They concluded that there were great opportunities for improvement in hoof health on farms in each area (von Keyserlingk et al., 2012).


If we consider that lameness causing diseases can be classified as infectious or non-infectious, then prevention programs will need to be designed to control either or both of these. For the infectious causes (digital dermatitis, heel horn erosion, and interdigital phlegmon) control will need to aim at hygiene of the floors and stalls and footbathing. For the non-infectious causes of lameness (mainly claw horn lesions such as sole ulcer and white line disease) prevention will necessarily involve proper management of bedding, stall design, and walking and standing surfaces as well as attention to feeding management. Good record keeping and analysis are also necessary for a prevention program.

Recent studies have calculated the heritability of gait (Chapinal et al., 2013b) or specific lameness causing diseases (Häggman and Juga, 2013, Oberbauer et al., 2013, Pritchard et al., 2013, Weber et al., 2013) and, although the heritabilities were variable in the studies, they all concluded that there was enough genetic variation to warrant selection for hoof health. In one of the studies (Oberbauer et al., 2013) it was also suggested that selection for hoof health would not interfere with genetic progress for milk yield. More work needs to be done to determine the best methods to select sires for hoof health.

Prevention of digital dermatitis (DD or foot warts) and other hygiene-related lameness requires good foot hygiene. If DD is endemic on a dairy then footbathing will also be necessary both for prevention and for treatment. Various compounds have been used for footbathing (Holzhauer et al., 2012, Logue et al., 2012, Relun et al., 2012, Relun et al., 2013, Speijers et al., 2012) but copper sulfate and formalin seem to be the most common and efficacious compounds used. Different concentrations and frequencies of footbathing have been reported to be efficacious but each dairy is different and footbathing programs will have to be designed specifically for each farm. One study found that footbathing 2d every month was not efficacious in preventing or curing DD (Relun et al., 2012) and it was concluded that footbathing would need to be more frequent than monthly. Various studies have reported on footbath size, a recent study makes a good argument for footbaths that are 3.0-3.7 m long, 0.5-0.6 m wide, and 28 cm high to optimize number of foot immersions and minimize footbath volume (Cook et al., 2012). Monitoring of DD prevalence on a periodic basis will determine if the program is working. A recent study found that an automatic foot washing with water and 0.4% soap made the hooves cleaner and decreased the prevalence of DD (Thomsen et al., 2012). This may be a feasible way to avoid the problems with handling and disposing of copper sulfate or formalin.

Cow comfort is the primary focus for preventing claw horn lesions (sole ulcer, white line disease, etc.). Walking surfaces need to be non-slip but not overly abrasive. Some research has found that softer (rubber) walking surfaces promote hoof health (Chapinal et al., 2013a, Vanegas et al., 2006) although one study found no difference between rubber, mastic asphalt, and slatted concrete (Haufe et al., 2012). Cows do prefer to stand and walk on rubber rather than concrete (Telezhenko et al., 2007).

Freestall surfaces have been studied with regard to cow comfort and effects on lameness causing lesions. Most studies found that deep bedding (e.g. sand) provides the best comfort and contributes the least to lameness (Andreasen and Forkman, 2012, Brenninkmeyer et al., 2013, Chapinal et al., 2013a, Husfeldt and Endres, 2012). Sand is the preferred bedding material but requires special handling to recycle the sand and keep sand from accumulating in the alleys. In California and some other areas dried manure solids also work very well as long as the manure is kept dry and the stalls are cleaned and re-bedded often. Stall design is also an important factor in cow comfort and lameness prevention (Chapinal et al., 2013a) especially neck rail to curb length. The freestalls need to be designed to fit the size of the cows and to allow cows easy entry and exit from the stalls. Deep bedding can overcome some shortcomings in stall design.

Functional claw trimming is an important component of both prevention and treatment. A good hoof-trimmer will be economical for the dairy operation and will contribute much to prevention and to treatment of lame cows. Smaller herds should be trimmed twice per year (Manske et al., 2002) and larger herds will benefit from trimming at shorter intervals. In California, well-managed, larger herds have a professional hoof trimmer on site every week or 2 weeks to trim and treat dry and lame cows.

Dairy producers are often very imaginative and, if properly motivated, can devise low-cost, simple management procedures that will help prevent lameness. One example is from a 3.5-year study (SL Berry, unpublished) on 3 large California dairies. One of the management decisions made on the dairy with the lowest incidence of lameness was that the cow-fetcher was not allowed to bring up the next pen of cows to be milked until the last bunch from the previous pen was in the holding pen. The cow-fetcher was given a rake and told to rake all of the manure paddies out of the stalls when bringing the pen of cows to be milked. The result of this management policy was that cows were standing on concrete for ½-1 hour less per milking, the stalls were kept cleaner, and the cow-fetcher allowed the cows to walk to the parlor at a leisurely pace. This dairy also had the highest milk yield, lowest lameness incidence, and best cow-welfare of the 3 dairies.


There have been several recent studies that looked at various methods of automated lameness detection (Chapinal et al., 2011, Chapinal et al., 2010, Chapinal and Tucker, 2012, de Mol et al., 2013, Ghotoorlar et al., 2011, Maertens et al., 2011, Viazzi et al., 2013). There is only one commercial system on the market (Rajkondawar et al., 2006) sold by Boumatic. While research indicates that automated lameness detection shows promise, I think there is no system currently that can replace human observation.

It is true that consistent observation of cows for clinical lameness is time-consuming and can be tedious but just as with estrus detection, nothing replaces an astute observer. There are several locomotion scoring systems used in practice and the research literature is replete with arguments in favor of one or the other. I think that the most important aspect is to have a good and interested observer watch the cows daily and flag those with clinical lameness. It is better to bring a few extra cows into the trimming chute to examine than to miss cows that need to be treated.


Prompt identification and treatment of lame cows will have shorter healing times and less deleterious effects on milk yield (Alawneh et al., 2012, Leach et al., 2012, Montgomery et al., 2012). These studies corroborate what we would consider to be common sense. One group of researchers noted that there are very few peer-reviewed studies of intervention studies and that some recommendations for treatments were poorly supported by the research literature and some contradicted other recommended treatments (Potterton et al., 2012). They pointed out that more properly designed intervention trials were needed. Treatment of lameness lesions should be rational and based on the best science we have.

Treatment of DD is most often accomplished on an individual cow basis with topical antibiotics (e.g. lincomycin or oxytetracycline). Results are usually rapid and dramatic with lesions appearing to be healed a few days after treatment. Recurrence is common, however, so observation and re-treatment needs to be ongoing (Berry et al., 2012, Döpfer et al., 2012). It is also possible to collectively treat cows using a footbath (Relun et al., 2012) or treat cows with topical antibiotic sprays while they are locked up for heat detection and breeding, providing their feet are clean.

Treatment of claw horn lesions will involve functional claw trimming, paring out lesions to get rid of necrotic tissue and applying orthopedic blocks to the sound claw to relieve pressure on the damaged claw. Monitoring these cows for healing and re-treating lesions as necessary will contribute to keeping the cows in the herd.


Improving cow welfare and longevity by improving hoof health requires dedication and careful management decision-making but it is possible. Some studies show that expert advice helps farmers make management changes, which have a positive effect on decreasing lameness prevalence (Bruijnis et al., 2013, Main et al., 2012, Whay et al., 2012).


1. Alawneh, J. I., R. A. Laven, and M. A. Stevenson. 2012. Interval between detection of lameness by locomotion scoring and treatment for lameness: A survival analysis. The Veterinary Journal 193(3):622-625.

2. Andreasen, S. N. and B. Forkman. 2012. The welfare of dairy cows is improved in relation to cleanliness and integument alterations on the hocks and lameness when sand is used as stall surface. Journal of Dairy Science 95(9):4961-4967.

3. Berry, S. L., D. H. Read, T. R. Famula, A. Mongini, and D. Döpfer. 2012. Long-term observations on the dynamics of bovine digital dermatitis lesions on a California dairy after topical treatment with lincomycin HCl. The Veterinary Journal 193(3):654-658.

4. Brenninkmeyer, C., S. Dippel, J. Brinkmann, S. March, C. Winckler, and U. Knierim. 2013. Hock lesion epidemiology in cubicle housed dairy cows across two breeds, farming systems and countries. Preventive Veterinary Medicine (0).

5. Bruijnis, M. R. N., H. Hogeveen, and E. N. Stassen. 2013. Measures to improve dairy cow foot health: consequences for farmer income and dairy cow welfare. Animal 7(01):167-175.

6. Chapinal, N., A. K. Barrientos, M. A. G. von Keyserlingk, E. Galo, and D. M. Weary. 2013a. Herd-level risk factors for lameness in freestall farms in the northeastern United States and California. Journal of Dairy Science 96(1):318-328.

7. Chapinal, N., A. M. de Passille, M. Pastell, L. Hanninen, L. Munksgaard, and J. Rushen. 2011. Measurement of acceleration while walking as an automated method for gait assessment in dairy cattle. J Dairy Sci 94(6):2895-2901.

8. Chapinal, N., A. M. de Passille, J. Rushen, and S. Wagner. 2010. Automated methods for detecting lameness and measuring analgesia in dairy cattle. J Dairy Sci 93(5):2007-2013.

9. Chapinal, N., A. Koeck, A. Sewalem, D. F. Kelton, S. Mason, G. Cramer, and F. Miglior. 2013b. Genetic parameters for hoof lesions and their relationship with feet and leg traits in Canadian Holstein cows. Journal of Dairy Science 96(4):2596-2604.

10. Chapinal, N. and C. B. Tucker. 2012. Validation of an automated method to count steps while cows stand on a weighing platform and its application as a measure to detect lameness. Journal of Dairy Science 95(11):6523-6528.

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12. de Mol, R. M., G. André, E. J. B. Bleumer, J. T. N. van der Werf, Y. de Haas, and C. G. van Reenen. 2013. Applicability of day-to-day variation in behavior for the automated detection of lameness in dairy cows. Journal of Dairy Science (0).

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15. Häggman, J. and J. Juga. 2013. Genetic parameters for hoof disorders and feet and leg conformation traits in Finnish Holstein cows. Journal of Dairy Science (0).

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18. Husfeldt, A. W. and M. I. Endres. 2012. Association between stall surface and some animal welfare measurements in freestall dairy herds using recycled manure solids for bedding. Journal of Dairy Science 95(10):5626-5634.

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22. Main, D. C. J., K. A. Leach, Z. E. Barker, A. K. Sedgwick, C. M. Maggs, N. J. Bell, and H. R. Whay. 2012. Evaluating an intervention to reduce lameness in dairy cattle. Journal of Dairy Science 95(6):2946-2954.

23. Manske, T., J. Hultgren, and C. Bergsten. 2002. The effect of claw trimming on the hoof health of Swedish dairy cattle. Preventive Veterinary Medicine 54(2):113-129.

24. Montgomery, J. A., K. Forgan, C. Hayhurst, E. Rees, J. S. Duncan, J. Gossellein, C. Harding, and R. D. Murray. 2012. Short term effect of treating claw horn lesions in dairy cattle on their locomotion, activity and milk yield. Vol. 2. 2012. No. 1.

25. Oberbauer, A. M., S. L. Berry, J. M. Belanger, R. M. McGoldrick, J. M. Pinos-Rodriquez, and T. R. Famula. 2013. Determining the heritable component of dairy cattle foot lesions. Journal of Dairy Science 96(1):605-613.

26. Potterton, S. L., N. J. Bell, H. R. Whay, E. A. Berry, O. C. D. Atkinson, R. S. Dean, D. C. J. Main, and J. N. Huxley. 2012. A descriptive review of the peer and non-peer reviewed literature on the treatment and prevention of foot lameness in cattle published between 2000 and 2011. The Veterinary Journal 193(3):612-616.

27. Pritchard, T., M. Coffey, R. Mrode, and E. Wall. 2013. Genetic parameters for production, health, fertility and longevity traits in dairy cows. Animal 7(01):34-46.

28. Rajkondawar, P. G., M. Liu, R. M. Dyer, N. K. Neerchal, U. Tasch, A. M. Lefcourt, B. Erez, and M. A. Varner. 2006. Comparison of models to identify lame cows based on gait and lesion scores, and limb movement variables. Journal of Dairy Science 89(11):4267-4275.

29. Relun, A., A. Lehebel, N. Bareille, and R. Guatteo. 2012. Effectiveness of different regimens of a collective topical treatment using a solution of copper and zinc chelates in the cure of digital dermatitis in dairy farms under field conditions. Journal of Dairy Science 95(7):3722-3735.

30. Relun, A., A. Lehebel, M. Bruggink, N. Bareille, and R. Guatteo. 2013. Estimation of the relative impact of treatment and herd management practices on prevention of digital dermatitis in French dairy herds. Preventive Veterinary Medicine (0).

31. Speijers, M. H. M., G. A. Finney, J. McBride, S. Watson, D. N. Logue, and N. E. O’Connell. 2012. Effectiveness of different footbathing frequencies using copper sulfate in the control of digital dermatitis in dairy cows. Journal of Dairy Science 95(6):2955-2964.

32. Telezhenko, E., L. Lidfors, and C. Bergsten. 2007. Dairy cow preferences for soft or hard flooring when standing or walking. Journal of Dairy Science 90(8):3716-3724.

33. Thomsen, P. T., A. K. Ersbøll, and J. T. Sørensen. 2012. Short communication: Automatic washing of hooves can help control digital dermatitis in dairy cows. Journal of Dairy Science 95(12):7195-7199.


Steven Berry

Steven Berry
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University of California

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