NADIS: Common causes of lameness in growing and adult cattle


This article will outline some common causes of lameness in older cattle including traumatic events causing joint instability and fracture of long bones, and bacterial invasion causing joint infections and infection of growth plates.

Limb fractures

Limb fractures may occur at calving when excessive and inappropriate traction is applied to delivery of the calf or when the recumbent calf is trodden on by its dam. These fractures are generally obvious except for fracture of the femur (thigh bone) when veterinary examination may be necessary.

Fracture of long bones occurs sporadically in growing cattle and affected animals present with sudden onset severe, non-weight bearing lameness of the affected limb. Immediate veterinary attendance is essential to examine and treat such cases. Determination of a femoral (thigh bone) fracture may be problematic due to the large amount of muscle in this region therefore veterinary attention is essential. It is not possible to stabilise a fracture of the femur and the animal must be destroyed for welfare reasons.

severe-lameness relative-size-of-cow-&-bull
Severe (non-weight bearing) lameness of the left hind leg necessitates immediate veterinary examination. Traumatic events causing joint instability most commonly result from bulling injuries in beef cows in large part due to the disparity in size/weight of the cow and bull.

Errors in mineral supplementation of intensive cereal rations, such a bull beef operations, can lead to poor calcification of the skeleton and long bone fractures may result in a large proportion of cattle unless immediate action is taken. It is therefore essential that all cases of sudden severe onset of lameness, particularly fractures, are investigated in all cattle.

Traumatic injury to joints

Traumatic events causing joint instability most commonly result from bulling injuries in beef cows in large part due to the disparity in size/weight of the cow and bull, and poor underfoot/standing conditions. The stifle joint is most commonly involved causing moderate/severe lameness with extensive muscle wastage occurring over the affected hind leg during the following weeks.

The lameness may reduce over several months but full recovery and function will not return and the cow must be culled. Transport to market will often not be possible for welfare reasons and affected cattle should be humanely destroyed on the farm to prevent further suffering.

severe-muscle-wastage carpal-infection
Trauma to the right stifle joint causing severe muscle wastage. Chronic infection of the right carpus (knee). Note the severe lameness.

Joint infections

Joint infections in growing and adult cattle tend to result from puncture wounds and most commonly involve the joint within the hoof capsule (septic pedal arthritis). Infection of other limb joints can result from penetration wounds often following handling through poorly-maintained cattle raceways and stocks where sharp metal protrusions can penetrate the fetlock, carpal, hock and stifle joints in particular.

Animals may not be immediately lame but the severity of lameness increased markedly over several days to the extent the animal may not bear weight on the affected leg. Veterinary attendance is essential at the time of observed injury in an attempt to prevent establishment of joint infection but the prognosis is not good.

Growth plate infections

Growth plate infections are not uncommon in growing cattle, especially involving the femur (thigh bone). Diagnosis is problematic and it is essential that veterinary attention is requested in growing cattle with moderate lameness where the cause is not obvious to the farmer. The prognosis is good when the condition is treated early during the clinical course with a prolonged course of antibiotics as determined by a veterinary surgeon. Delays may result in a pathological fracture of the bone necessitating humane destruction of the animal.


Mild to moderate lameness is a common problem in dairy cows with UK national survey data reporting prevalence figures up to 20 per cent – one in five dairy cows is lame at any one time on every dairy farm! However, severe lameness is very uncommon especially in growing cattle and beef cows.

While many mild to moderate causes of foot lameness can be dealt with by suitably-trained farmers, causes of sudden onset severe lameness necessitate immediate veterinary attendance not only for welfare reasons but also to prevent further cases. Many cases can be successfully treated, others necessitate immediate humane destruction for welfare reasons. Such decisions can only be made after veterinary examination.

While veterinary examination may be seen as adding further expense on top of financial loss, there is a duty of care that must be paramount. While the old farming adage that Òyour first loss is your best lossÓ considers financial matters only, the welfare of lame cattle must always be considered.

Copyright © NADIS 2009