Ask the vet: Mfethu, here’s why your sheep are limping

Apart from being an animal welfare issue, lameness has adverse effects on production, fertility and longevity. Despite it being deemed a common occurrence in flocks by some, it should always be actioned

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Thabo Msibi from Queenstown in the Eastern Cape writes: Recently, some of my sheep have been limping. Farmers in my village say I shouldn’t worry too much because lameness is one of the most common and persistent disease problems in sheep flocks. While this might be true, I would rather see all my sheep in a good condition.

Dr Fikile Khanyile, a veterinarian from Johannesburg, acknowledges that lameness creates a major cost for many farms in terms of time and money spent on products to treat and prevent the condition as well as the associated production loss.

Sheep lameness: An Eastern Cape farmer, Thabo Msibi, tells Food For Mzansi that some of his sheep has recently been found limping. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
An Eastern Cape farmer, Thabo Msibi, tells Food For Mzansi that some of his sheep have recently been found limping. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Apart from being an animal welfare issue, lameness has adverse effects on production, fertility and longevity.

Possible causes

One must first establish the cause of the disease before attempting to control or treat lameness.

The different lameness conditions can be easily misdiagnosed. Accurate diagnosis can be made based on the clinical examination of a number of sheep and based on key symptoms of the different causes.


This occurs between the hooves and is usually red/pink and moist with the loss of hair. It comes from inflammation of the skin between the digits. Antibiotic sprays or foot baths are usually sufficient. With scald there is no smell and no involvement of the hoof.

Foot rot

This is a hoof disease that generally starts between digits but develops to an underrun hoof and it also has a distinctive smell. Rotting in the hoof is also another sign. Foot rot is a sheep-to-sheep disease and control and prevention must focus on the whole flock. It is particularly transmissible when sheep are confined to a small area such as during housing periods, in handling yards, in contaminated bedding or on access routes. To treat individual cases of foot rot, injectable antibiotics should be used. There is a vaccine available to reduce the incidence of the disease.

Shelly hoof

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The wall of the hoof detaches and debris and soil enter the space. As a result, abscesses usually develop. Treatment is only necessary if the animal is lame. Careful paring may be required to release debris and soil.

Contagious ovine digital dermatitis (CODD)

This type of lameness starts at the coronary band (where the hoof and the hair meet). It usually spreads rapidly to underrun the hoof wall. It is usually the outside wall of the hoof that is affected. There is no foul smell with this type.

It bleeds easily and, as the name suggests, it’s contagious and can affect 30% to 50% of the flock in a short time. It is important to note that a sheep can be affected with both foot rot and CODD at the same time.

Tetracycline antibiotics and routine foot baths are not effective at controlling CODD. Treatment with specific antibiotics and antibiotic spray together with antibiotic foot bath solution is required. A veterinary diagnosis is essential for the correct treatment of CODD. 

Fikile’s 5 points to remember

  • Treat: It is essential that all lame sheep are caught, lameness identified and treated effectively. The good sheep farmer will have a keen eye and observe the flock closely for signs of lameness.
  • Separate: Yes, you really have to separate lame sheep from the rest of the flock so that healthy sheep are not infected.
  • Cull: It’s sad, but persistent offenders need to be culled. Therefore records and identification marks are important so to identify these sheep easily and to avoid retreatment on multiple occasions.
  • Quarantine: All incoming sheep should be quarantined for 28 days to avoid the introduction of a different strain of foot rot or CODD. Sheep should be examined thoroughly while in quarantine. Lame sheep should never, ever be added to the flock.
  • Vaccinate: Use of vaccination has been shown to reduce foot rot significantly by protecting individual sheep and reducing the challenge on farm.

ALSO READ: Farming mentor’s golden rule: Never overplay your hand

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