Farmers: Here’s how to prevent foot rot in cattle

The symptoms of foot rot in cattle is dreaded by farmers, who know the disease can cause them serious losses. We spoke to a senior research veterinarian at the ARC about the diagnosis, prevention and cure of this infection

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Watch out cattle breeders, allowing your cattle to stand or walk in wet and muddy areas for prolonged periods of time may not be such a good idea, an expert warns. These environmental conditions can actually cause foot rot disease in cattle and lead to disastrous results.

Although foot rot disease can occur at any time, Western Cape cattle farmers need to be especially wary. With the onset of the rainy season they will soon start seeing wet, damp or muddy conditions in their feedlots or pastures.

But what is foot rot disease and why should farmers worry?

Food For Mzansi spoke with Dr Allison Lubisi, a senior research veterinarian at Agricultural Research Council Onderstepoort Veterinary Research, to find out more about this common cattle disease.

She also outlines the clinical signs of foot rot and offers tips for prevention.

What is foot rot?  

Before even thinking about keeping this infectious condition at bay, it’s important to first understand what it is and how it is caused.

Foot rot
Dr Allison Lubisi, a senior research veterinarian at the Agricultural Research Council – Onderstepoort Veterinary Research. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
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Lubisi explains foot rot as being an infectious disease caused by bacteria, affecting at least one foot.

“It’s characterised by severe lameness, reduced feed intake, decreased weight gain, reduced milk production and reluctance of bulls to mount, leading to economic devastation for the farmer,” she says.   

It is caused by a bacteria called Fusobacterium necrophorum, which is usually found in oxygen deficient environments. It inhabits the largest compartment of the stomach and the faeces of cattle.

Lubisi says it is also found in soil. Bacteria invasion usually happens to cattle with damaged or softened and thinned skin between the toes.

This invasion, she says, “can be caused by continuous exposure to wet and muddy environments, and those heavily contaminated with faeces and urine. The skin can also crack due to high temperatures and humidity”.

Once this happens, swollen, cracked and dead tissue between the toes of the cattle becomes visible; a sight cattle farmers dread.

ALSO READ: Deadly disease to hit livestock

How to spot foot rot

According to Dr Lubisi the clinical signs of foot rot are:

  • Increased body temperature.
  • Swelling on both sides of the hoof, hotness, redness, softness and severe pain in the space between the toes and around the hairline and coronary band of the hoof.
  • Separation of the hooves may be seen.
  • Dead tissue in the space between the toes, with a foul odour.
  • Ulcers, abscesses, abrasions, fractures and inflammation around the hoof may be present.
  • Weight shifting from affected legs and lameness.
  • Decreased feed intake, weight gain and production.

“All livestock with split hooves are prone to acquiring this bacterial infection. Mechanical damage to the skin can be caused by recently cut thick plant stubs, abrasive and rough surfaces, stones, sharp gravel, and hardened and cracked mud,” Lubisi explains. 

foot rot
Foot rot in cattle showing severe swelling of one foot extending to the dewclaws. Photo: Supplied/ARC/Hunt & Behrens inc

Foot rot can also be caused by the presence of other common bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli, and Actinomyces pyogenes (bacteria found on the skin of cows). Furthermore, deficiencies of minerals such as zinc, selenium and copper in the diet of the animals are also implicated in the occurrence of the disease.

“Apart from that,” Dr Lubisi says, “There is also severe swelling that pushes the toes apart, swelling of the entire foot from above the hoof to above the dewclaws and severe swelling of one foot extending to the dewclaws.”

Avoid confusion and unnecessary panic

Foot rot
Foot rot in cattle showing swelling of the entire foot from above the hoof to above the dewclaws. Photo: Supplied/ARC/VCE Publications

Lubisi warns that it is common for foot rot to be confused with other conditions characterised by lameness or lesions on the feet. Proper diagnosis, she says, should be made by cleaning and examination of the foot, with special focus on establishing the presence of lesions that characterise foot rot.

This includes, “lameness in at least one limb, swelling between the toes affecting all hooves, separation of the skin, presence of a foul-smelling necrotic mass, and invasion of the inner layer of skin and deeper structures of the foot if the problem persisted longer without treatment”.

Other foot conditions, Lubisi explains, normally involve one hoof of the foot or affects one part such as the heel or the skin only.

How to treat foot rot?

Lubisi advises that treatment be assigned as early as possible for a successful outcome. To avoid the rest of the herd getting sick, she recommends that all affected animals should be separated from the herd.

“Treatment should begin with cleaning the affected foot with clean, soapy water and examining it to make a proper diagnosis,” she says. “A veterinarian may advise on the most suitable treatment, which can include antibiotic drugs applied on the affected area or injected into the animal’s body and administration of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines for pain relief.”

In cases where the initial intervention does not resolve the problem, the wound must be re-cleaned, infected tissue removed, topical antimicrobial drugs applied, the antimicrobial regimen initially administered must be changed and the wound re-dressed.

“The foot should be kept clean and dry at all times during treatment,” says Dr Lubisi.

Prevention is better than cure

Of course, in incidences of foot rot, prevention is so much better than waiting for disaster to strike. Therefore, management of the environment and husbandry practices are extremely important in reducing foot rot.

foot rot
Foot rot in cattle showing severe swelling that pushes the toes apart. Photo: Supplied/ARC/VCE Publications

Dr Lubisi’s advice is to remove stabbing plant materials and objects and to avoid paths that may damage the foot.

“Accumulation of urine, manure and mud around animal housing, feed troughs and water points should be prohibited, and time spent standing in wet areas should be minimised,” she adds.

Footbaths containing 4% formaldehyde, 5% copper or zinc sulphates, or antimicrobials have been reported to control the disease.

“Cattle feet must be clean before dipping into foot baths to avoid soiling and reducing the concentrations of the ingredients. Copper, selenium and zinc are associated with maintaining skin and hoof integrity, while the former two are also important in maintaining a healthy immune system.”

According to Dr Lubisi, these minerals can reduce the vulnerability of cattle skin, hoof damage and bacterial infections that cause foot rot. However, hygiene and balanced nutrition remain key factors in the prevention and control of many infectious livestock diseases.

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