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  • How to stamp out lameness in your flock

    Posted on by Abii Dowdy

    Lameness is one of the biggest costs to the sheep farmer in the UK. Our team has written this article to help producers understand the reasons why their flock could be suffering and to highlight measures to help reduce the recurrence of lameness issues.

    The healthy foot

    A healthy foot is made up of a hard wall of horn around 2 toes, each with a softer sole horn on the base of the foot. This horn is only 2-3mm thick so can be penetrated easily by thorns or sharp objects. In between the two toes is interdigital skin, this is usually pale pink and dry with a layer of fine hairs in healthy sheep. Wall horn grows on average at the rate of 5mm per month, but does vary between the seasons. As the growth usually matches the wear, it is very rare that sheep require foot trimming. If the sole and wall horn is not hot, smelly or soft and the sheep is not lame, then leave your sheep’s feet well alone!

    The 6 main causes of foot lameness in the British flock

     

    Scald (strip/ interdigital dermatitis)

    Scald displays itself as red/pink inflammation of the skin between the toes with white/grey discharge on top. It can also have a very strong smell and sheep can be very lame with quite small lesions. Scald is caused by the same bacterium as footrot and infection occurs through damaged skin, such as cuts from rough pasture and hedge trimmings, and moisture which causes the skin to soften. Your flock is more likely to be affected where there are high numbers of stock kept together. Areas around water and feed troughs tend to be the places where scald can be transmitted.

     

    Scald is often a problem in lambs caused by the environmental factors above and if large numbers are affected then running them through a footbath will often be the best way to manage the problem. However, any animals with severe problems should be treated with topical antibiotic spray as they are unlikely to put their foot down in the footbath on the way through!

     

    In adult sheep where scald is now considered the early presentation of footrot, footbathing is much less effective and they should be treated with antibiotic injections and topical spray.

    Footrot

    Footrot is the progression of scald.  It is easily distinguishable with a grey, oozing pus and a foul smell. The hoof horn starts to separate, starting in the interdigital space. It is caused by the same bacteria as scald which can live for a couple of weeks on pasture, thriving in warm and moist conditions. Footrot can also be found in housed sheep where the flock is kept on warm bedding.

    Once identified, footrot must be treated immediately with a long-acting antibiotic injection combined with antibiotic spray. There are many different strains of footrot and some cause more severe disease than others. They may also respond to different types of antibiotic so please do discuss your choice of antibiotic with us to ensure we are getting the best results.

     

    Avoid trimming an infected foot as the bacteria will be spread in trimmings on the floor and on your foot shears and can survive for a long time despite some disinfectants. The foot may be overgrown but this is caused by the infection, the infection is not caused by the overgrowth, and once treated the foot will return to a normal shape.

     

    Sheep with footrot are very infectious and spread the bacteria quickly to other sheep or lambs at foot. Prompt treatment and isolation, if possible, will therefore prevent further contamination of the pasture and more cases.

     

     

    The following strategies are useful to reduce the incidence of footrot:

    • Prompt treatment of even mildly lame sheep early on to avoid the spread of infection.
    • Avoid the spread of infection at gathering and handling by good hygiene of handling areas or footbathing sheep after handling to disinfect their feet. Spreading lime in areas of high traffic can also reduce the risk of infection.
    • Try not to select replacements with a history of lameness.
    • Cull sheep that have footrot more than twice in a season.
    • Consider the use of vaccination (Footvax) before high risk periods.
    • Quarantine incoming sheep for a month on arrival, examine all feet carefully for problems and run them through a footbath.

    Contagious Ovine Digital Dermatitis (CODD)

    This infection starts as a small ulcerated area at the coronary band and progresses under the hoof horn capsule towards the toe. This can cause the whole hoof capsule to fall off and this infection is often the cause for severe lameness in both adults and youngstock. A bacteria known as Treponema spp is thought to be responsible for CODD. It is essential that farmers seek veterinary advice if CODD is suspected as a course of long-acting antibiotic injections may be required.

    It is essential that if CODD is not present on your farm that you take great care when buying replacements not to introduce it. We recommend turning over and inspecting the feet of all returning or new sheep as many with early stages of CODD may have lesions but not appear lame. Again, quarantine all new flock members and footbath.

    Toe Granuloma

    A red pea-sized ball that grows on the sole horn is a toe granuloma, it will be sensitive and bleeds easily. Sheep with toe granulomas often don’t weight bear on the affected foot. It can be caused by damage to the foot, most often when feet are trimmed incorrectly; the fleshy lump is the result of the sensitive tissue beneath the horn being cut into. Toe granulomas can also follow severe cases of footrot.

    Seek veterinary advice but use painkillers and antibiotics if you notice signs of infection. Keeping sheep close to the farm for regular checking and also bandaging the foot with copper sulphate can help. To prevent toe granulomas occurring in your flock, avoid foot trimming.

    Toe abscess

    Sheep will be very lame if they have a toe abscess. Hooves will be hot to touch and painful before pus becomes visible at the coronary band and at the boundary between horn and skin. Abscesses are usually caused by a puncture wound and they are treated by draining the abscess, removing pressure and paring the sole as necessary. A similar presentation is seen if separation of the white line, the border between the sole horn and wall horn of the foot, occurs and becomes infected. Sheep must then be treated immediately with an antibiotic injection and spray. To help prevent abscesses from occurring, try to keep stock away from areas which could cause foot damage, such as where hedges have been trimmed and thistles.

    Shelly hoof

    This is where the horn of the toe and the wall separate to form an open pocket, becoming susceptible to disease.  It is caused by hoof damage from rough/wet/stony ground. Affected sheep may not appear lame on soft ground but if sheep are lame, remove the loose horn flap and treat as white line disease.

    There is currently no exact method of prevention, however check that your sheep’s mineral/ vitamin balance is correct and try to avoid walking them on uneven and stony ground.

    Management moving forward

    The five-point plan was created to help farmers develop a clear understanding on how to control lameness in their flock. The AHDB Beef & Lamb Better Returns Programme have produced a useful document with more detailed information about its development and use on farm. Please click the link below to be redirected to their website:

     

    https://beefandlamb.ahdb.org.uk/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/BRP-Lameness-five-point-plan-110615.pdf

     

    As discussed in the plan above, a preventative procedure that farmers can use is the footrot vaccine. This vaccine reduces the clinical signs of footrot and helps to protect the animal from infection of the bacterium known to be the cause. This same bacterium also plays a part in CODD lesions so the vaccine will undoubtedly have a positive impact on flock health.  The vaccine usually lasts between 4-5 months and is used alongside veterinary advice and other preventative procedures. It is best given in anticipation of the worst period for footrot for your farm. Revaccination can be required every 6-12 months depending on the flock and the level of lameness present. To discuss the use of this vaccine, make sure you contact our team on 01327 350239.