Lameness: Early Detection and Prevention

When asking producers about lameness, often the response I get is in the form of a yes/no answer. “Yes, she’s lame”, or “No, she’s not lame.” The problem with this is, lameness is not a yes/no question; lameness covers a spectrum of soundness to slightly lame to severely lame, and there are several minute changes in the way a cow moves that can cue us in to whether she’s starting to feel a sore foot coming on.

In tie-stall herds where cows don’t walk frequently, we can focus on scoring cows while standing in the stall – a system that can often give false positives as well as false negatives. In this scoring system, a cow that shows us two or more of the behaviors would be given a lame diagnosis. Again, though, this system gives a yes/no response when in reality, we can diagnose the onset of lameness far sooner if we can watch cows walk.  These include such behaviors as:

  • Weight shift: Regular, repeated shifting of weight from one hoof to another, defined as lifting each hind hoof completely off the ground at least twice. The hoof had to be lifted and returned to the same location and did not include stepping forward or backward.
  • Stand on edge: The cow places one or more hooves on the edge of the stall while standing stationary. This did not include times when both hind hooves were in the gutter or when the cow briefly placed her hoof on the edge during a movement or step.
  • Uneven weight: Repeatedly resting one foot more than the other, indicated by the cow raising a part or the entire hoof off the ground. This did not include raising of the hoof to lick or during kicking.
  • Uneven movement: Uneven weight bearing between feet when the cow was encouraged to move from side to side. This was demonstrated by a more rapid movement by one foot than the other, or by an evident reluctance to bear weight on a particular foot.
  • Visible wart or hoof swelling.

If we are able to watch a cow walk, we can give her a locomotion score as long as the place where she is walking is flat, not slippery, and allows for calm and deliberate strides. The UBS Dairy Cattle Gait Scoring System is described in the chart, below. Scores 1 and 2 describe behaviors of sound cattle – mainly evenly tracking of hooves, symmetrical gaits, freely flexing joint and steady head carriage.

When we move to score 3, we start to notice that these cows start to have the ability to move compromised in some way.  Joints may seem stiff, gait may be somewhat asymmetrical, and hind hooves won’t track up evenly.  If we can watch cows for these small signs and address the issue early, we can stop her from becoming a score 4 or 5.  If you watch closely, you may be able to start to discern a slight limp in one limb that may be the issue.

Score 4 is a cow that most producers would confidently describe as ‘lame’, but in reality, this cow was showing signs of the onset of lameness days or weeks earlier. Score 5 cows do happen on herds from time to time, but hopefully these girls are getting hospital care and detailed attention to her feet. If we can identify lameness sooner, we can start to uncover the reasons why cows start to develop sore feet. Some producers know their laneways to pasture are bony and result in abscesses. Others know their exercise lot gets stones brought up on concrete and cows develop bruises. Other are struggling with warts and are frustrated that their foot bath system doesn’t seem to be keeping up with prevention like they feel it should. Once you’ve identified the reasons why your cows develop sore feet, we can start troubleshooting how to make the system better.

In terms of footbaths, spending time watching cows exit the parlor and go through footbaths is time well spent. In order for footbaths to work, cows need to get a minimum of two dunks per foot in that bath. Oftentimes, I see footbaths set up on a parlor exit with no gates around them. When watching cows leave, the front feet each get one dunk, a back foot gets dunked once, and the other back foot passes right over the bath without a dunk. If you’re using copper sulfate, and your feet aren’t somewhat blue – you should watch your cows move through the bath.

So how do we make the footbath system better? Move the baths to an area where it’s flat, well-lit, and we can make cows go through the bath so they can’t bypass it with some feet. This movement doesn’t need to cost money in concrete, either. Simple gates and plywood sides around this bath help move cows efficiently and effectively through the bath while keeping bathwater in the bath, and are easy to take down to clean on days where the bath isn’t being run. By keeping it well-lit, cows will be able to see where they’re going and won’t hesitate in getting through the bath. Simple tweaks to your system may help you get better wart control and better results without costing anything. We can even locomotion score cows before and after making a change to track any improvement.

Other considerations for footbaths include:

  • Making sure you have the right concentration for the product you’re using
  • Ensuring employees are trained correctly on how to fill baths
  • Doing treatment baths on consecutive days
  • If feet are really dirty, setting up a soap bath for a couple days before setting up your treatment baths

In any economic situation, attention to detail on locomotion and foot care will always reward positive results. In poor economic times, ensuring your footbaths are working for you just makes sense. Give me a call – I’ll gladly come out to see your system and give feedback on cows, locomotion and footbaths no matter your system.

UBC Dairy Cattle Gait Scoring System
Score Description Behavior
Smooth and fluid
Flat back when standing and walking
No swinging out
Symmetrical gait
All legs bear weight equally
Joints flex freely
Hind-hooves track up to fore-hoof prints
Head carriage remains steady as the animal moves
Ability to move freely
not diminished
Flat or mildly arched back when standing and walking
Minimal swinging out
Slightly asymmetric gait
All legs bear weight equally
Joints slightly stiff
Hind-hooves do not track up perfectly   but shortened strides are uniform
Head carriage remains steady


Capable of locomotion
but ability to move freely is compromised
Flat or mildly arched back when standing, but obviously arched when walking
Swinging out
Asymmetrical gait
Slight limp can be discerned in one limb
Joints show signs of stiffness but do not impede freedom of movement
Hind-hooves do not track up and strides may be shortened
Head carriage remains steady


Ability to move freely is obviously diminished
Obvious arched back when standing and walking
Swinging out
Asymmetrical gait
Reluctant to bear weight on at least one limb but still uses that limb in locomotion
Strides are hesitant and deliberate and joints are stiff
Hind-hooves do not track up and strides are short
Head bobs slightly as animal moves
Severely Lame
Ability to move is severely restricted
Must be vigorously
encouraged to stand
and/or move
Extreme arched back when standing and walking
Swinging out
Asymmetrical gait
Inability to bear weight on one or more limbs
Obvious joint stiffness characterized by lack of joint flexion with very hesitant and deliberate strides
One or more strides obviously shortened
Head obviously bobs as animal moves