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Lameness can have many causes

Beef 911: In some cases, knowing the cause and adjusting your management can prevent problems

This article will outline some of the more common arthritic conditions and touch on some preventive measures.

A lot of these conditions of course are brought on by age. In order to get more longevity out of our cows, we need to look at lameness as it is one of the common reasons for culling.

In past years, the slightly arthritic cow was shipped but if we could prevent some of these injuries, or make it more comfortable for these cows, we can extend their productive life. The most common conditions are the stifled cow or ones experiencing lots of arthritic changes in their pelvis and hip joints.

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The stifled cow only puts little weight on her toes and is usually quite swollen in the knee area. With very little usage of the leg muscles, muscle soon wastes away and the whole quarter becomes shrivelled. The ligaments holding the knee together have been damaged or ripped and often are irreparable.

Causes can be any sudden torque on the leg such as a breeding injury, getting stuck in soft terrain at a dugout, or bunted from the side when establishing pecking order. Trucking, loading, and moving cattle through narrow gates also predisposes them to these injuries.

We can eliminate a lot of these scenarios through good management practices.

Remote wind- or solar-powered watering stations around dugouts prevent cattle from having to slog through mud to drink. Not only does this prevent injuries, weight gains and health are better. Keeping the herd in good nutritional health and trimming bad-footed cows also minimize the chance for these kinds of injuries. Documenting when (the time of year) and where these injuries occur may shed light on their causes.

I realize some are totally a fluke and unpreventable. Producers have commented to me on rough breeding bulls knocking cows down or bunting them around. If one bull injures lots of cows, he may be one to put on the culling block. The same thing applies to overly aggressive cows or ones with horns. The cow with the extremely bad feet is more apt to get it caught or not have it pivot when it should, resulting in the stifle injuries just mentioned.

Once these injuries are permanent, allowing easy access to feed and water may allow you to keep them longer and get more calves out of them. Painkillers and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) on prescription from your veterinarian can be used in acute cases. But once the condition becomes chronic, they are not practical to use and often not effective.

YOU must be the judge as to when the animal is suffering too much and decide whether you can get another calf out of her or not. If possible, synchronizing and AI’ing her may prevent further injuries.

Arthritis comes on with age, but in many cases longevity can be increased by keeping our calcium-to-phosphorus ratio at two to one and by keeping the cows in the right body condition.

In selecting replacements (bulls and heifers), we have always stated, “Select good feet and legs.” This increases longevity and may help prevent arthritis because of poor conformation and walking improperly. Also keep an eye on a straight back. Some calves are born with congenital spine abnormalities such as scoliosis (twisted spine) or torticollis (twisted neck) and should be avoided as replacements.

Problems at calving may result in separation of the sacroiliac joint (the point where the spine passes over the pelvis). Later this can lead to dropping of the spine and the bony points of the pelvis pushing up, which makes walking extremely difficult. If you hear a loud pop when pulling a calf, this may be what has happened. Selecting for easy calving, which most farmers are doing, can prevent these pelvic-type injuries from developing.

Treatment for all these conditions simply involves making the cow as comfortable as possible. Painkillers as mentioned can be used on a short-term basis and some can be mixed in with grain to make treatment that much easier. Some mildly stifled cows can last several years. For others, it may be trying to get that last calf out of them to orphan onto a needy cow.

Other arthritic conditions are septic arthritis of the P2-P3 joint with a severely swollen area above the claw. These may respond very well with amputation of the toe, while other techniques involving drilling out the joint are very successful long term.

Infectious arthritis involving the other joints often occurs in young weaned calves and often involves mycoplasma or histophilus organisms. These conditions come with a guarded prognosis for recovery even with extensive antibiotic therapy.

You can see arthritis comes in many forms and it is often in consultation with your veterinarian that the course of therapy or shipping is determined.

One must keep in mind that severely lame animals become an animal welfare issue, so it is critical to have them attended to — especially if weight bearing becomes minimal.

On rare occasions, we may get what I call a functional lameness where animals limp because of nervous damage, tendon injury, or conformational problems. In these cases, it takes experience to know when they are not in pain and don’t need treatment.

About the author


Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.



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