As we wean calves and move them to feeding facilities, nothing's more frustrating than dodging respiratory disease only to lose a calf to an unresolved injury or infectious lameness. Even more frustrating from a veterinary standpoint is when the management of lame beef cattle is relegated to seeing what a shot of an antibiotic will do for the problem. There are other options.

Let's focus on two common problems found in backgrounding and feeding situations — footrot and toe abscesses, and one emerging challenge — hairy heel warts.

  • Footrot is the old standard. The theory is irritation or trauma to the foot allows the primary pathogen of Fusobacterium necrophorum to colonize and grow. You first notice a lame animal with swelling or erosions between the toes. As the swelling advances, the toes may spread apart.

    The secret is to catch such cattle early, which is difficult without getting every animal up when you walk the pen. Cattle treated late in the disease have a high potential to become a “club foot,” a condition from which recovery is very limited.

    Swelling above the hoof due to infection requires extended attention. When caught early, many antibiotics will provide rapid response. Anti-inflammatories may also help but first talk with your veterinarian about treatment options.

    Footrot prevention includes dry pen surfaces (not always possible) and minimizing trauma to feet. While a few inches of mud in the pen isn't always in our control, we can control whether cattle have to slog through hock-deep mud to reach feed and water. In the winter, running a box blade over rough, frozen ground to smooth the surface can help minimize trauma.

  • Toe abscesses commonly are attributed to trauma. A typical site is the outside claws on the hind legs, though any claw can be affected. Many cases probably start with damage to the “white line,” the line on the bottom of the foot between the hoof wall and the sole. It's the extension of where the hoof wall hooks on to the bone inside the claw (the corium or “quick”).

    This line, or the toe itself, can be worn down and separated by abrasion of the foot on rough surfaces, such as improperly finished concrete. Talk to a facility-design professional to avoid concrete that's too rough or too smooth.

    The pressure of an abscess spreading along the corium separates the hoof wall or sole from the bone, which results in a sensation similar to a torn human fingernail (the anatomy is very similar). Corrective foot trimming can remove pressure from the damaged area, but should only be done by someone who understands how much to take off, and in what area.

    Indiscriminate digging in with a hoof knife can cause bleeding and damage the corium, and the corium is what needs to heal for the animal to return to normal. Problems are also caused if the sole becomes too thin.

    Another option to relieve pain from a severely affected claw is to glue a block on the adjacent claw to take the weight. This can dramatically change how the animal moves. Work with your veterinarian to relieve the pressure and pain and get the calf gaining again.

  • Hairy heel warts were previously thought to be solely a dairy industry issue but have been documented recently in beef feedlots. Many of the affected feedlots also feed Holstein steers. Causes and pathogens are still being worked out, but an organism of the species Treponema is commonly isolated.

To the uninitiated, this disease looks a lot like footrot, but there are key differences. Footrot tends to start between the toes and progress up the foot, while hairy heel warts start at the back of the foot and progress down.

The classic early lesion is a raised, red, wart-like swelling surrounded by elongated hairs (Figure 1). Thus the names “strawberry foot rot” and “hairy heel wart.”

In the feedlot, many cases go unobserved until extensive erosions appear on the heel (Figure 2), which can spread between the claws to the front of the foot. The typical affected animal stands on the toe of the affected foot to keep pressure off the heel (Figure 3).

Treating as typical footrot will lead to poor response, so work with your veterinarian to recognize this disease and develop a treatment program. It might include wrapping the affected area with an antibiotic powder, or systemic therapy with an appropriate antibiotic. This disease can spread rapidly, so early identification is key.

Lameness is among the most common causes of performance loss and early sale in feeding situations. Plan now to prevent and appropriately treat these conditions.

Mike Apley, DVM, PhD, is an associate professor in clinical sciences at Kansas State University in Manhattan.