cows in field

Preventing & Treating Lameness in Cows

Proper way to tie a cow when working on a foot.

By Dr. Hubert Karreman

Added April 7, 2014. Lameness in cows is to be prevented as much as possible and especially in those that walk to pasture and graze for part of their diet, as certified-organic dairy cows are required to do. This article will look at nutritional and environmental factors affecting hoof health and the practical treatment of hoof problems.

Hoof growth and nutrient

The hoof grows downward from the hoof-hairline junction (coronary band) at about 0.2 inches per month (two inches per year overall). At the coronary band are cells, much like cells in our nail bed, which actively secrete substances the “bricks and mortar” of the hoof. These cells are highly sensitive to any changes in the nutrients and toxins circulating in the blood as they are at the “end of the line” - at the farthest point from the pumping station (the heart). A small handful of vitamins, minerals and amino acids have been identified as extremely important for the healthy growth of hooves. Biotin, sometimes called vitamin H, is the most important vitamin followed by vitamins A, D and E. Zinc is the most important mineral followed by copper, selenium and calcium. The most important amino acid is cysteine, which contains sulfur. All these work together in intra-cellular enzymatic reactions to secrete keratin, which builds up thicker and thicker to make what we see as the hoof itself. Problems with lameness will arise when any of these nutrients are lacking in the diet.

Rumen health and hooves

Equally as important is proper rumen health since rumen acidosis can cause the release of histamine and endotoxins which can go into circulation and alter blood flow to the hoof-hairline junction, changing nutrients delivered as well as depositing endotoxins to the hoof generating cells. You may sometimes see little line(s) wrapped around the hoof wall, parallel to the ground, on all four hooves. This is evidence of a major stress in the recent past, often due to sudden dietary changes, which has upset normal hoof growth. Anytime there are signs of irregularities of growth, there’s a higher likelihood of infectious material in the environment, like that which causes hairy heel wart, setting in. Surprising to many graziers is that rumen acidosis can occur in cows grazing lush pasture early in the spring – but only if the other feed they are eating is baleage and grain. This is due to not enough structural/effective fiber (“scratch factor”).

Pasture vs. confinement

Most university research on lameness is on cows continuously kept inside on concrete. Fortunately for certified-organic cows, they get to walk on real earth with its natural “give”. I mention this because I’ve been called to emergencies in grazing herds when a bunch of cows have somehow accidentally gotten into excessive amounts of grain in the barnyard yet ended up having no ill-effects on hooves (when treated the day it happens). Usually such a situation results in foundered animals with cows confined on concrete. I believe that the affected grazing cows, being able to walk on earth, were afforded natural cushioning as compared to if they had been stuck on concrete with zero “give”.

However, walking on the land has its own potential problems in the form of pebbles, gravel and stones as well as mud. Dairy farmers who have invested in improved laneways are usually quick to tell others that they have never regretted doing so. Good laneways will have a “crowned” surface to ensure that water sheds away from the center of the walkway as well as a having pulverized, fine material free of stones to walk on – stone dust is often used. Use of a roll of thick rubber matting would be an alternative to actual re-construction on laneways. A cow lane needs only to be 3-4 feet wide, just wide enough for cows to walk in single file.
Not pushing cows too fast as they walk is critical – but especially on un-improved laneways. Let them go at their own rate so they aren’t forced to step down on something that they would otherwise avoid. Stream crossings are also a potential problem with un-seen stones encountered on the bottom. Installing hog slats is a cheap way to create easy walking lanes since they make for a safe and level walking surface, whether submerged under water at a stream crossing or in areas known to easily become muddy.

Visual signs of lameness

While prevention via proper nutrient intake and good walking lanes are critical, problems still can pop up occasionally. Closely watching how cows walk can help with early detection of hoof problems. Normal cows walk with a level, straight back. Any arc to the spine, no matter how slight, is an indication that they are painful in some way – usually in a hoof or limb but also possibly internally in the abdomen. Any head bobbing upward as they walk is a definite sign of lameness. Cows should walk with their heads relaxed and relatively low. Obvious limping indicates the animal needs immediate attention.

Cows can “hide” a hoof problem for a while. This is because they can place their weight on the unaffected toe while keeping weight off the bad one, which will eventually show with extra growth where it is not worn down. This is how to spot a problem area when inspecting a hoof closely. However, if an abscess happens to develop at the very front point of any toe, they will go lame almost immediately.

Treatment of hoof abscess

Having an area to properly lift a hoof is an absolute necessity for any dairy operation - a stationary chute or a tie-stall so the cow and hoof can be immobilized. For ease of work, the hoof should be hoisted such that the hock is at about the level of the vulva and the hoof itself is about the level of your waist. At all times have ready sharpened hoof paring knives and a set of nippers. There’s nothing worse than trying to pare and trim a hoof than with dull equipment – and the work needed to get done will be avoided, resulting in a terrible problem eventually.

Once hoisted, clean the hoof to see it completely. A normal hoof will have the entire bottom perimeter evenly touching the ground at the same time. The bottom of the hoof should slope slightly up and in toward the center of the toes. Any little bumps or bulging areas anywhere on the bottom surface are evidence of not being worn down normally. These areas should be pared away as that is where an abscess is likely to be. Also, any shiny black line leading to an area of bulging hoof growth should be pared away as this usually leads to an abscess area. Abscesses are usually caused by a stone piercing the weight bearing area of the hoof. Don’t be afraid to open up an abscess – they must be opened up well. Some bleeding is OK. This will bring new circulation and nutrients to the area. Open up abscesses until the existing bottom surface blends once again smoothly to the more inner surface, so there is no “shelf” effect of two different levels of hoof surface. If you can run your finger tip underneath the bottom, there is still a “shelf”.

I usually open up abscesses to about a nickel or quarter size area and even larger. I then cleanse with 3% hydrogen peroxide or iodine tincture and then apply a wrap. Usually if opened up properly, an abscess is a once and done treatment. One thing for sure: getting an abscess treated correctly the first time is very important as cows have a tendency to cover over that area quickly and any abscess area not opened up will go deeper yet.

Preventing & Treating _HeelWart_2

Hairy heal wart

Foot rot and Hairy heel wart

Foot rot is another problem usually caused by a piercing object – but into the skin area between the two toes. This can become infected quickly with lots of inflammation above the hoof-hairline junction. The cruddy area between the two toes needs to be cut away and allow new blood to come there. The area is then cleansed with 3% peroxide or tea tree oil. Then I make a thick paste of ½ cup sugar and 20cc Betadine (povidone iodine). I put that on a big wad of cotton and wrap with hoof wrap, having the toes slightly spread apart The wrap must be changed in 2-3 days. At the change, a dead “core” will be seen and can easily be pulled out. Then cleanse with peroxide and re-wrap with another round of the thick paste on cotton.
The sugar-Betadine mix has worked so well on foot rot in cows, goats and sheep that I actually now use it as my primary “salve” for any hoof problem. And it’s cheap and easy to make yourself. I approach all hoof problems similarly: pare away as needed, make it bleed a little, cleanse with peroxide or tea tree oil, and wrap with sugar-Betadine. For instance, with hairy heel wart - much like poison ivy in that it is very much a surface problem – I very shallowly pare away the area (which afterwards is not painful), cleanse with peroxide, and apply a wrap with the sugar-Betadine mix. You can substitute a really thick raw honey for the sugar-Betadine if you like for any condition – the principle behind both is that they are anti-bacterial and healing.

Foot baths

Foot baths are certainly OK to use – but you don’t need to actually use a sloppy liquid bath. In fact, copper sulfate baths dumped on your land will quickly load your soil with dangerously high levels of copper. Rather, use a box filled with dry hydrated lime about 4 inches deep so that hooves will penetrate down into it and get a good covering of it. A minor draw back is that you can put the spent material only on any uncertified land.

Preventing & Treating _wraphlwt3

Dr. Karreman wrapping a hoof


While problems are generally minimal on organic farms, lameness and its effect on efficient grazing really must be prevented. By proper nutrition and environmental improvements, your cows should be able to move freely and easily as they graze contentedly.

Dr. Hubert Karreman is the Institute Veterinarian at the Rodale institute and Founder and Principal of Bovinity Health, providing natural products for the non-antibiotic treatment of infectious disease. Previously, he was in full-time dairy practice for 15 years with certified organic herds in the Lancaster, PA area. He is the first certified CowSignals (c) trainer in the United States and enjoys sharing insights into reading cows and understanding what they are telling us. Dr Karreman can be reached by email:, website: