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Research   »   Lameness


Lameness is leg or foot pain that affects how cattle move. There are many different kinds of lameness, with many different causes, such as genetics, environment, injury, nutrition, and a variety of infections. Lameness can negatively affect both animal welfare and growth performance, because animals may be reluctant to eat or drink if standing or walking is painful.

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Importance to the Beef Industry

Lame feedlot cattle grow more slowly than cattle that are not lame (1.75 lbs/day vs 2.95 lbs/day)1. Similarly, steers diagnosed with footrot during the finishing period need up to two weeks longer to reach slaughter weight2. A lower rate of gain can be costly in terms of welfare, labour, pen space and feed.

Many animals will recover with appropriate treatment. Chronic cases may be salvaged, provided all pharmaceutical withdrawal requirements have been met and the animal can be transported without additional suffering. Humane euthanasia on the farm is recommended when animal welfare is severely compromised and not expected to improve.


Lameness is rare in healthy cattle. A recent study assessing 3,243 receiving feedlot cattle between 400 to 700 lbs in one Kansas feed yard reported the incidence of lameness to be 1.6% at the time of pre-processing and 2.5% up to 40 days after processing3. A 2007-08 survey of 50,000 beef cattle transported in Ontario identified 79 lame cattle4, and a 2008 survey of over 290,866 beef cattle transported in Western Canada found 37 lame cattle5.

Lameness is more common in unhealthy cattle. A survey of five large feedlots in Kansas and Oklahoma found lameness to account for 16% of all recorded feedlot health problems6. Data collected at three Alberta feedlots reported the prevalence of lameness in the chronic pens varied between 32.8-52.8%, with an overall average of 37%1.

Lameness is also more common in older cattle. A 2008 survey of 18,949 auction mart cattle in the Western U.S. found that 15% of beef bulls and cows, 26% of dairy bulls and 45% of dairy cows were lame6. Western Canada’s transport survey also reported that lameness was considerably more common in market cows than in fed cattle, feeders or calves5.


Accurate diagnosis is important for successful treatment and prevention of future cases. Producers should not assume that lame cattle have footrot without close observation, to avoid unnecessary administration of antibiotics.

"Most people look at a lame cow and assume it’s foot rot. However, foot rot is a very specific disorder. If it’s foot rot, it will get better with antibiotic treatment. If a producer calls and says, ‘Doc, I’ve got a cow with a bad case of foot rot that I’ve been treating for a week,’ then I know it’s not foot rot. It’s either something else, or it’s been neglected too long before treatment was begun and it has gone into the joint. Recognizing foot rot is highly important, so I teach people some of the clues.”

“When an animal gets foot rot, the key thing is swelling above the hoof. The swelling is symmetrical and affects both digits, forcing the claws apart. If you look closely at the foot, you will see a grey-green slimy mass sticking out from the skin between the claws. If you give that animal antibiotics the foot will get better. Anything else that’s causing lameness needs to be looked at by a veterinarian.”

- Dr. Chris Clark, Western College of Veterinary Medicine
from "The Importance of Field Diagnosis" in the September 2014 issue of Canadian Cattlemen Magazine


Four common causes of lameness include:

  1. Genetics (e.g. bad conformation, corns, corkscrew claw, puffed hock)
  2. Nutrition (e.g. laminitis, sole ulcerations, double sole, bruised sole, heel erosion, white line disease, toe ulcers)
  3. Infection (e.g. footrot, infection of the coffin joint, interdigital dermatitis, and infectious arthritis)
  4. Physical injury (e.g. broken leg, frostbitten feet)
Lameness may have multiple causes. For example, when hyperexcitable cattle (which may have a genetic component) scramble on hard flooring, they may damage the sole of the feet (injury), allowing bacteria to enter and colonize the foot (infection). This is one theory to explain P3 necrosis (also known as 'toe necrosis').

Each of these causes is associated with specific risk factors. For example, trauma or wet conditions that may affect skin integrity causes lameness directly and provides an avenue for bacteria to enter and colonize a wound.

Producers should not assume that lame cattle have footrot without close observation, to avoid unnecessary administration of antibiotics.

Risk Factors

Common risk factors associated with an increased incidence of lameness include:

  • Facility design flaws that can cause hoof and leg injuries
  • Sharp edges or protruding objects (wire, metal, rocks, ice or frozen manure) that can contribute to physical injuries
  • Aggressive or improper animal handling practices can increase the occurrence of slipping, falling and physical injury8,9
  • Buller steer syndrome can increase foot and leg injuries9,10
  • Extremely wet (muddy) pen conditions11
  • Slick surfaces that cause animals to slip (i.e. more lameness on concrete or slatted floors versus strawed flooring12)
  • Cattle having an excitable temperament are more likely to damage the soles of their feet or injure their legs/feet
  • Mycoplasma bovis the bacterial agent associated with infectious arthritis and bovine respiratory disease (BRD)13
  • Nutrition related to the feeding of high grain diets, erratic consumption of grain, and improper feed processing leading to laminitis and/or founder.

Prevention and Control

Management practices that may help to reduce lameness include:

  • Pen landscaping (mounds), proper drainage, and cleaning to reduce excessive mud
  • Removing sharp objects from the pen such as rocks
  • Appropriate precautions to reduce the risk of BRD (such as low-stress weaning, preconditioning, vaccination and other prophylactic measures)
  • Handling practices and well-designed and maintained facilities that reduce potential for animal injury
  • Veterinary consultation regarding potential use of a Fusobacterium necrophorum vaccine for  footrot14
  • Careful management of step-up rations and high-grain diets to reduce the risk of acute acidosis.
  1. Tessitore, E., Schwartzkopf-Genswein, K. S., Cozzi, G., Pajor, E., Goldhawk, C.Brown, F., Janzen, E., Klassen, P.and Dueck, C.2011. Prevalence of lameness in 3 commercial feedlots in Southern Alberta during summer months. Proceedings of the Canadian Society of Animal Sci. pg 75.
  2. Tibbets, G.K., PAS, Devin, T.M., Griffin, D. Keen, J.E. & Rupp, G.P. (2006). Effects of a single foot rot incident on weight performance of feedlot steers. The Professional Animal Scientist, 22, 450-453.
  3. Green, T. M., Thompson, D. U., Wileman, B. W., Guichon, P. T. and Reinhardt, C. D. 2012. Time of onset, location and duration of lameness in beef cattle in a commercial feedyard. Kansas State University Cattlemen’s Day 2012, pages 21-24. http://hdl.handle.net/2097/13556
  4. Warren, L. A., Mandell, I. B. and Bateman, K. G. 2010. An audit of transport conditions and arrival status of slaughter cattle shipped by road at an Ontario processor. Can. J. Anim. Sci. 90:159-167.
  5. González, L.A., Schwartzkopf-Genswein, K. S., Bryan, M., Silasi, R, and Brown, F. 2012. Relationships between transport conditions and welfare outcomes during commercial long haul transport of cattle in North America. J. Anim. Sci. 90:3640-3651.
  6. Griffin, D., Perino, L. & Hudson, D. 1993. Feedlot lameness. University of Nebraska Neb-Guide, Lincoln NB.
  7. Ahola, J.K., Foster, H.A., VanOverbeke, D.L., Jensen, K.S., Wilson, R.L., Glaze Jr., J.B., Fife, T.E. Gray, C.W., Nash, S.A., Panting, R. R., and N. R. Rimbey. 2011. Survey of quality defects in market beef and dairy cows and bulls sold through livestock auction markets in the Western United States: I. Incidence rates. J. Anim. Sci. 89:1474-1483.
  8. Grandin, T. 1988. Commentary: Behavior of slaughter plant and auction employees toward the animals. Anthrozoos, 1, 205-213.
  9. Stokka, G.L., Lechtenberg, K., Edwards, T., MacGregor, S., Voss, K., Griffin, D., Grotelueschen, D.M., Smith, R.A. & Perino, L.J. 2001. Lameness in feedlot cattle. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food Animal Practice, 17, 189-207.
  10. Taylor, L.F., Booker, C.W., Jim, G.K. & Guichon, P.T. 1997. Sickness, mortality and the buller steer syndrome in a western Canadian feedlot. Australian Veterinary Journal, 75, 732-736.
  11. Bergsten, C. 1997. Infectious diseases of the digits. In Lameness in Cattle, 3rd Edition. Eds. Greenough, P. & Weaver, A.D. Philadelphia, PA: W.B. Saunders Co.
  12. Murphy, P.A., Hannan, J. & Monaghan, M. 1987. A survey of lameness in beef cattle housed on slats and on straw. In Cattle Housing Systems, Lameness, and Behavior (pp. 67–72). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.
  13. Caswell, J.L., Bateman, K.G., Cai, H.Y. & Castillo-Alcala, F. 2010. Mycoplasma bovis in respiratory disease of feedlot cattle. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food Animal Practice, 26, 365-379.
  14. Checkley, S.L., Janzen, E.D., Campbell, J.R., & McKinnon, J.J. 2005. Efficacy of vaccination against Fusobacterium necrophorum infection for control of liver abscesses and footrot in feedlot cattle in western Canada. Canadian Veterinary Journal, 46, 1002-1007.
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Thanks to Dr. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada researcher focused on animal welfare standards and reducing transport stress in farm animals for assisting with the development of this page.

This topic was last revised on March 27, 2019 at 8:03 AM.

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