Lameness in sheep is not uncommon and can be caused by a range of issues in the hoof. A sheep may favor a hoof due to a small injury or improperly trimmed hooves, but in most cases, lameness indicates an infection. Animals with hoof infections such as footrot suffer from lameness, decreased weight gain, and poor wool growth. Many hoof ailments are contagious and require quick and thorough treatment. As you can see, it is important to understand how to diagnose and treat hoof health issues quickly.
As with most aspects of animal health, the best way to approach hoof health is to use preventative practices.
- Trim and treat the hooves of any sheep you purchase. Quarantine new animals for at least 30 days.
- Do not purchase sheep from flocks with footrot, even if the individual does not show signs of infection.
- Move water troughs and feeders periodically to avoid wet, soggy conditions in high traffic areas.
- Moisture softens hooves, leaving them susceptible to injury and infection.
- Sprinkle powdered drying agents such as lime on the ground around feeders and water buckets.
- Keep sanitary conditions. Do not let manure build up.
- Avoid keeping sheep in wet or soggy pastures.
- Use a foot bath containing copper sulfate or zinc sulfate.
- Remember, copper can stain wool and is toxic if ingested!
- Adding fleece in the bath to act as a sponge can reduce splashing and waste.
- Replenish the solution as needed.
- In lieu of a standing foot bath, you may opt to periodically soak the hooves in the same drying solution.
- Treat hooves after sheep have traveled to shows or other locations where they came into contact with other animals.
- Sanitize hoof care tools such as trimmers and hoof picks between animals.
Scald (Interdigital Dermatitis)
Scald is a common necrotic condition caused by the anaerobic bacteria, Dichelobacter nodusus, (one of the two bacterium that cause footrot). Its primary site of infection is the interdigital (between the toes) skin. Scald susceptibility increases with injury or prolonged exposure to moisture. The skin between the toes is red, hairless and swollen due to the infection. The area may feel hot. Infected sheep may be lame, but in mild cases, the animal may not limp at all.
Scald only infects the skin between the toes. As a result, it does not cause the distinct rotting odor associated with footrot. Often, once the sheep is on dry ground, the infection heals, however, scald often precedes footrot and should be treated immediately.
- Move infected animals to a clean, dry environment.
- Treat hoof with zinc sulfate or copper sulfate, either as a soak or a topical solution.
- Repeat treatment until the skin is fully healed.
- Avoid contact between healthy and infected animals.
Footrot (Hoof Rot)
Footrot is a severe hoof infection caused by coinfection of two anaerobic bacteria, Dichelobacter nodusus and Fusobacterium necrophorum. Rot is highly contagious, especially in moist environments. Footrot causes lameness and is characterized by its distinct and strong odor of rotting tissue.
The bacteria responsible for footrot occur naturally, and will not cause an infection unless they can establish in the tissue of the hoof. Small cuts and overgrown hooves create pockets that are perfect environments for anaerobic bacteria. (Anaerobic bacteria cannot live in the presence of oxygen.) The infection runs under the hoof wall, and into the soft tissue of the sole and heel.
Left untreated, the hoof will suffer irreparable damage and can degrade the white line, which holds the hoof wall to the inner hoof. Sheep with repeated infections will have gnarled, misshapen hooves. Sheep that do not respond to treatment or sheep with repeated infections should be culled. Sheep never develop immunity to foot rot.
There is a foot rot vaccine, however it only lasts for six months and does not provide 100% protection.
- Trim hoof to remove infected tissue and eliminate any pockets or gaps in the hoof wall.
- Allows topical medications to penetrate the hoof.
- Exposes anaerobic bacteria to air.
- Soak hooves for 30 minutes in 10% solution of zinc sulfate.
- Adding a small amount of soap can help the zinc sulfate penetrate the hoof.
- As with a foot bath, adding a small amount of wool to the solution can reduce splashing and waste.
- Repeat at least once a week until the infection is clear.
- Contact your vet to see if treatment with antibiotics is necessary or beneficial.
- Once antibiotic treatment ends, sheep will develop foot rot again if exposed to the same conditions and bacteria.
- There is some evidence suggesting the foot rot vaccine can speed up recovery.
- Keep infected animals in a clean, dry area for up to three weeks.
- These bacteria are known to survive up to three weeks in pockets of soil or manure, or on the hoof wall.
- Do not allow healthy animals to contact the ground where infected sheep have been.
Abscess (Bumblefoot, Heel Abscess, Toe Abscess)
Abscesses are infected lumps of tissue caused by bacteria infecting an injury, usually a puncture wound from a sharp object. Unlike other infections, an abscess generally impacts only one hoof. The sheep will not put weight on the hoof, and may refuse to move at all.
In sheep, abscesses usually present in the skin immediately above the hoof. The lump and surround skin will be hot, swollen and red. Unlike footrot, abscesses contain pale green or cream-colored pus, which may ooze out of the wound.
Treatment involves draining the abscess of necrotic (rotting) material and pus, which may occur when the swollen abscess ruptures. If not, the abscess has to be lanced. If you are not experienced with treating abscesses, the best course of action will be to contact a vet.
Once drained, treatment including antibiotics and wraps may help facilitate recovery.
Treating lame animals requires an understanding of different types of infections, their symptoms and their impacts. Preventative care is a worthwhile investment, saving time and productivity in the long run. In the case of sheep, an ounce of prevention may well be worth several pounds of cure!
By Mary McLaughlin, Somerset County 4-H Volunteer, Rutgers Cooperative Extension