Keep a weather eye out for foot rot. The wet and warm conditions of this season have set the stage for the bacteria that causes it to flourish.
“The wet weather gives more places for the bug to live and softens up the animal’s skin which makes little wounds more prevalent,” said Dr. Wayne Tomlinson, extension veterinarian with Manitoba Agriculture. “In wet years, we’ll see more foot rot than in dry years because the conditions are right in the wet years for the bacteria to thrive in mud.”
Foot rot, or bovine interdigital necrobacillosis, is a common disease that causes lameness. It is caused by a bacteria infection and can occur in dairy barns, on pasture or in feedlots.
The disease is highly contagious and is contracted when skin between the toes of the cattle is damaged, creating a point of entry.
“If there is a scratch or scrap, they can pick up the bacteria. So, if their feet are wet, their skin is softer. Just like you and I if we sit in the bathtub for a long time. Your skin is softer and more easily damaged,” Tomlinson said.
Foot rot is more common when animals are in situations where they are overcrowded or are moving on rough ground or through fields with stubble. Soils with a high pH can also have a higher incidence of infection.
Recognition and treatment
Foot rot should be fairly easy to spot, as infected animals will be in significant pain. The animal will become lame and spend more time lying down.
“Foot rot is easily recognized. The animal is in extreme pain. There is swelling of the foot. Oftentimes the two toes are a little bit apart. If you lift the foot up, early on there is a very foul odour to it,” Tomlinson said.
Foot rot can also cause the animal to run a fever, generally reducing the animal’s appetite, and impacting the production of milk or breeding.
Tomlinson says the foot rot needs to be treated early and aggressively with antibiotics or it can become more severe. If left untreated, foot rot can cause joint, bone and tendon sheath infections and possibly, chronic abscesses.
“It is easier to treat early on, in the early stages of the condition before it gets embedded in the soft tissue. If you do catch this early on, most antibiotics will work,” Tomlinson said.
Foot rot is most commonly treated with penicillin, oxytetracyclines and ceftiofur. Once treated the disease should resolve in four to five days.
Be thorough when inspecting the animal and don’t presume all lameness is caused by foot rot.
“One of the things I have learned over the years is that people tend to use the word lameness interchangeably with foot rot and foot rot does occur but it is very specific,” said Dr. Chris Clark, clinician, professor and researcher with the University of Saskatchewan.
Clark, whose research focuses on cattle lameness and the control and prevention of infectious disease, says improper diagnosis of foot rot can lead to unnecessary administration of antimicrobials, and can prolong the discomfort of the animal and increase the loss of production.
“It is important to make sure that it is foot rot that you are actually dealing with,” Tomlinson agreed. “A swollen foot doesn’t necessarily have to be foot rot. It can be a sprain, it can be something stuck in between the toes, staples, sticks, or nails, or it could be a sole abscess.”
The best way to prevent contracting foot rot is to try to keep cattle out of wet areas by ensuring good drainage in corrals, or fencing off of riparian areas, or low, swampy parts of the pasture.
“The environment is huge but there is no environment that is better or worse. We can have good corrals and bad corrals, and good pastures and bad pastures,” Tomlinson said. “Wet, muddy areas are a much nicer environment for the bugs to grow, so if we can keep them high and dry, whether it is in a corral, dry lot or pasture situation. Keeping them high and dry won’t guarantee anything, but it will go a long way in keeping the bug out.”
If you determine foot rot is present within the herd, Tomlinson says it may be best to isolate the animal to help prevent the spread, but also, from a humane aspect, to reduce its distance to food and water.
Tomlinson notes that there is a vaccine currently available for foot rot but says it is certainly not an absolute solution.
“There is a vaccine available, but because of the nature of the bacteria, the vaccine helps but it is not 100 per cent effective,” Tomlinson said. “We have had mixed success. Some of the producers will find that it works quite well, others find that cattle recover quicker but it doesn’t prevent them from getting it and others don’t know if it helps much at all.”
Clark adds that most concern around the disease is usually focused on bulls as something like foot rot can cause the animal to be unproductive. He recommends being proactive prior to breeding season.
“There are a few things to think about. If you have your animals on pasture, bulls typically carry a lot of weight and travel a fair distance. So, you want your bulls to have the healthiest feet possible,” Clark said. “Over the years it has come to my attention and now I really promote that if you have a bull in pasture and you are relying on him to breed those cows, it is worth making the investment of getting his feet salted out before breeding season.
“What I usually recommend is that if you are getting the bull’s semen checked about six weeks before going to pasture that is the perfect time to get his feet inspected. That way you still have six weeks before you need him to work and then he will go out to pasture with really good feet and those should get him through the summer.”
Clark says producers can also be proactive by making sure cattle have all of the vitamins and minerals they need for healthy skin and hoof growth, as well as look at good conformation, as long hooves can cause complications.