Lameness Types


3 min read

Main types of lameness White line disease Sole bruising Sole abscess Sole ulcer Hoof wall crack Foot rot Digital dermatitis

Lameness in New Zealand's dairy herds is primarily caused by five types of hoof lesions: White line disease, Sole problems (including bruises, abscesses, and ulcers), Hoof wall cracks, Foot rot, and Digital dermatitis. This page details details the visual appearance, affected claws, and risk factors of these main lameness types. It explains how they occur, particularly focusing on specific points of the cows' feet, and the unique conditions and triggers for each type of lameness. By understanding these, farmers can identify and manage these issues more effectively to ensure the health of their herd.

There are five main types of hoof lesions in New Zealand herds.

Main types of lameness

The main types of lameness in New Zealand are:

Blue area: White line disease (Above coronary band - White Line disease break out point.)

Green area: Sole

      Haemorrhage / bruise (1 or 2)

      Absess (2)

      Ulcer (1)

➖ Hoof wall crack

⬤ Foot rot

▲ Digital dermatitis

Some lameness is above the claw or the type is unclear/unknown.

What lameness looks like

See visual examples, what claws are affected and the risk factors for the main lameness types.

White line disease

What it looks like:

  • Wall is split away from the sole and may be filled with sand and gravel.
  • Break out or abscess at the coronary band or at the back of the heel.
  • When the outside wall is trimmed, a dark line can be found running vertically up the hoof from the sole to the coronary band or heel.

Which foot

Mostly seen in:

  • Back foot outer claw in mixed aged cows
  • Front foot inner claw in heifers.

How does it happen?

  • The white line is a weak point in the hoof and if damaged can lead to the white line separating.

  • At calving the white line weakens and is more susceptible to damage.

  • Twisting and turning of feet on tracks and yards puts increased pressure on the white line.

  • Stones can be pushed up into a separated white line resulting in further damage.

  • If this continues, stone and bacteria will reach the sensitive tissues of the hoof causing pain and infection.

  • If not treated early and effectively permanent damage to the bone within the hoof can occur, which will increase the risk of the cow getting lame again in the future

Sole bruising (or haemorrhage)

What does it look like?

  • Reddish/dark brown areas on the sole

  • Patches can be localised or they can cover large portions of the sole

  • Often the cow is lame in more than one foot and they are stiff when getting up and walking.

  • Bruising remains for weeks after the initial damage and may be present along with other sole lesions and WLD, so always check for these other lesions.

Which foot?

  • Can be found in all feet, both inner and outer claw
  • Common in heifers in their first few months of lactation.

How does it happen?

  • At calving the tissue below the sole becomes more susceptible to damage (haemorrhage)

  • From very thin soles.

Sole abscess

What does it look like?

  • Have a dark hole or crack in the sole
  • May lead to a pocket of pus.

Which foot?

  • Common in toes of heifers
  • Common in inner claw of rear feet in cows

How does it happen?

  • At calving the sensitive tissue below the sole is more susceptible to damage which can result in defects in the sole horn.
  • Not completely understood
  • From the changes in the hoof at calving.

Sole ulcer

What does it look like?

  • Has a reddish/dark brown area that is often soft
  • Underrun horn
  • Can be very painful

Which foot?

  • Usually found on outside claw of rear feet.

How does it happen?

  • At calving the sensitive tissue below the sole is more susceptible to damage which can result in defects in the sole horn

  • Can be from long periods of standing on concrete e.g. feed pads

Hoof wall crack

What does it look like?

  • A vertical crack found usually on the inner wall of the claw.

Which foot?

  • Cracks appear in both front and back feet on any claw.

How does it happen?

  • Damage to the soft tissue between the claws that then grows down as a crack. Risk factors are the same as for foot rot.

  • Poor conformation of feet e.g. corkscrew.

Foot rot

What does it look like?

  • Skin between claws is broken.
  • Swelling and heat below the dew claws.
  • It often smells.

Which foot?

  • Foot rot can be found in any of the feet.

How does it happen?

  • Usually the skin between the claws is broken by a stone, especially under moist hoof conditions.

  • Bacteria then invade the soft tissue causing an infection.

  • The onset of foot rot is rapid and will continue for at least a week or until complications set in.

  • It is a very painful condition.

Digital dermatitis

Digital dermatitis is a highly infectious bacterial skin disease of the feet which is a significant cause of lameness in cattle overseas. It thrives on dirty feet and spreads in dirty conditions.

The disease was discovered in Italy in 1974 and was first identified in five New Zealand herds in 2011. Two years later a further 40 infected herds were discovered. A 2014-15 pilot study conducted in Taranaki found more than 50% of dairy herds tested had some infected animals.

What does it look like?

  • Red or grey lesion on the skin above the hoof – usually between heel bulbs.
  • The red surface of the ulcer is sensitive to water pressure or touch.
  • Can progress and have a wart-like appearance.
  • The infection may get deeper into the hoof, causing erosion and underrunning of the heel horn.

Which foot?

  • Usually the back feet (80%).

How does it happen?

  • Digital dermatitis is contagious, so it can be spread from cow to cow.
  • Various bacteria are able to break the skin, usually at the back of the foot and an infection sets in.
Last updated: Sep 2023
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