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Lameness and other
foot problems


Lameness and other foot problems

Sheep are subject to a range of foot diseases that all cause lameness. These are especially common in wet weather when foot damage and skin inflammation pre-dispose sheep to developing infections.


Footrot (including scald)

Footrot is an infectious disease most prevalent in medium to high rainfall areas. Virulent strains of footrot cause severe lesions and spread rapidly in warmer, moist environmental conditions. Other strains of the bacteria causing footrot do not cause serious disease and are regarded as ‘benign’ strains.


Often affects more than one foot


In mild cases (known as scald), some reddening between the toes

In more severe cases, underrunning (i.e. separation) of horn from hoof. Starts at the heel, then progresses to sole, toe and eventually outer wall

Infected feet often smell

Infected feet may become flyblown


The bacteria that causes footrot lesions is called Dichelobacter nodosus

Unless there has been a previous footrot outbreak in your stock, the most likely way of introducing the bacteria to your property is by the introduction of new stock that are infected

The bacteria that causes footrot can live in the feet of a carrier sheep (or goat) indefinitely, even under dry conditions

A paddock which has had no sheep, goats or cattle in it for seven days is likely to be free from footrot

Control, Treatment and Eradication

Note that virulent footrot in sheep is a notifiable disease in most states (NSW, SA, WA, Victoria) and must be reported to the state department of agriculture

Control of spread involves footbathing (for long or short term actions)

Footbathing in zinc sulphate helps treat existing lesions and reduce the spread of bacteria, improves the health, welfare and production of sheep, enhances the effect of a footrot vaccination program if used and provides precautionary quarantine treatment for introduced sheep

Eradication programs involve the identification and removal of all infected sheep from a flock when footrot is not spreading

All feet on all sheep must be inspected, and infected sheep or those requiring extensive foot trimming should be culled

In some cases salvage treatment with foot paring, footbathing and antibiotic treatment can be used. 

Repeat inspection is made four weeks after the initial inspection and continued with regular surveillance

Foot Abscess


Lameness and obvious acute pain

Swelling, usually just above the hoof

In some cases, pus can be seen above the hoof or between the toes

Usually only one foot affected, and only in a small number in a flock


Damaged foot tissue due to physical damage or irritation

Wet paddock conditions

Feet trimmed too close to blood supply

Failure to maintain sheep's feet in good condition

Heavy sheep are more prone


Pair or trim the feet, clean the infected area and apply an anti-bacterial compound

Antibiotic injections and keeping the sheep on a dry surface will assist healing

Applying zinc sulphate and bandaging may help

Many cases take a prolonged period to heal and often the foot is permanently deformed


Ensure the sheep's feet are kept in good condition by regular inspection and pairing where necessary

Prevent sheep from getting too heavy. Pre-lamb shearing has helped in some cases

Ovine Interdigital Dermatitis (OID)


OID has symptoms similar to scald, and can lead to footrot as it creates an ideal environment for bacterial growth

Reddening between the toes and occasional fluid weeping into the area. Unlike scald, there is no underrunning of the horn

Often affects more than one foot


Warm wet weather

Especially when the pasture is lush or the paddocks muddy


Remove the sheep from the pasture or paddock

Overnight housing to ensure feet are kept dry such as on the grating in the shearing shed or on a dry, hard floor is often sufficient

If possible, return the sheep into a drier paddock


There is little that can be done to prevent OID

In warm wet weather, place sheep in paddocks which have the driest conditions

Shelly Hoof


In severe cases, lameness

Separation of the horn from the hoof, usually along the outer wall

Formation of a cavity between the horn and the hoof susceptible to soil and dung which in wet conditions may lead to a bacterial infection

Sometimes the separation of horn from hoof starts at the toe and the cavity forms at the front of the foot


Failure to maintain the sheep's feet in good condition

Merinos are more susceptible than British or European breeds, especially in higher rainfall areas

Sheep with black hooves are generally less susceptible


Careful pairing of feet and cleaning the dung and soil out of the cavity

If infection is present or suspected, the sheep should be footbathed in zinc sulphate

Keep sheep in dry paddocks or on grating in wet conditions


Regular foot inspection and pairing where necessary. Pairing should always be minimal, as over-trimming feet can predispose the animal to other foot infections and hoof damage

Feet should be in good condition before the wet conditions of winter and early spring

In wet conditions, running sheep on dry, rocky ground or on gravel farm tracks for short periods will help maintain hoof health



Lameness, in severe cases multiple legs are affected

Multiple joints can be affected

Expression can occur later in life from a newborn lamb infection

Early signs are hot swollen joints

Chronic arthritis exhibits as hard, enlarged joints with reduced movements

Animals are reluctant to walk or stand


There are 3 primary causes of arthritis
1) Erysipelas Bacteria (click for further information)
2) Chlamydia Bacteria
3) Pus-forming Bacteria

All breeds are vulnerable to arthritis

Infection can be from birth, this is the primary cause of erysipelas arthritis

Open wounds and management operations are another common infection point

An insect vector is responsible for Chlamydia arthritis


Occasionally antibiotic use can reduce the damage from the infection if administrated early


Vaccination with Eryvac® in ewes at pre-lambing and lambs at marking and weaning will prevent erysipelas arthritis

Hygiene during management operations is important to reduce the incidence of arthritis due to pus-forming bacteria

Prevention of Chlamydial arthritis is not possible

Joint Comparison, Arthritis and Normal

Joint Comparison, Arthritis and Normal (photo courtesy Bruce Farquharson)

Erysipelas arthritis

Erysipelas Arthritis

Further Reading

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