Sheep and goats are commonly affected by footrot, causing significant lameness issues and costly economic losses. Our team at Leatherstocking Veterinary Services wants to help by providing information about this condition and offering management techniques to lower your herd’s risk.

Footrot pathogens in sheep and goats

Coexisting infections with two different gram-negative, anaerobic bacteria causes footrot in sheep and goats. 

  • Fusobacterium necrophorum F. necrophorum naturally colonizes small ruminants’ large intestine, and the bacteria are commonly found in the soil and manure of pastures and feedlots inhabited by sheep and goats. When mud and manure accumulate, the interdigital space can become irritated, the bacteria invade the area, and the infection sets the stage for a second bacterial infection.
  • Dichelobacter nodosus — Several different strains of D. nodosus can infect sheep and goats. Feet infected by F. necrophorum are vulnerable to D. nodosus infection, and the synergistic infection results in footrot. The D. nodosus bacteria produce a powerful enzyme that can dissolve the hoof horn.

Footrot signs in sheep and goats

Footrot causes a malodorous, raw, painful infection between the digits, and affected sheep and goats are typically lame, and may graze on their knees. Other signs include weight loss, decreased wool and milk production, and decreased reproductive health. Footrot severity depends on the D. nodosus strains present. Different strains produce different enzymes, which determines their ability to digest the connective tissue between the horn and hoof flesh. Footrot infection severity is scored on a scale of one to five. Conditions include:

  • Benign footrot — Also known as foot scald, this condition causes reddened, inflamed tissue between the digits, but does not undermine the hoof horn. Benign footrot is scored as a one or two, and in amenable conditions, can progress to virulent footrot. 
  • Virulent footrot — This condition is much more concerning. The bacteria digest the hard, horny sole tissue that protects the hoof, and can undermine the hoof horn and separate the horn from the hoof wall. Chronic virulent footrot appears black and tarry, and the distinctive smell commonly draws flies. Scoring involves:
    • Three — Significant hoof undermining is present.
    • Four — The soft and hard horn has separated from the underlying tissue across the entire sole. 
    • Five — The separation extends up the hoof wall.

Footrot susceptibility in sheep and goats

Factors that affect a sheep or goat’s susceptibility to footrot include environmental conditions and nutrition, plus other contributing factors, including:

  • Age — Younger sheep and goats are typically more susceptible than older animals.
  • Species — While goats are more commonly affected by foot scald, sheep are more likely to experience severe virulent footrot complications. About 5% to 10% of sheep become chronic carriers, and infected animals don’t develop resistance or immunity.
  • Genetics — Footrot can be controlled naturally by breeding for sheep and goats who have natural resistance.
  • Foot growth and structure — Sheep and goats with faster growing feet are more susceptible, while those with an open structured narrow foot have a lower risk.

Footrot treatment in sheep and goats

Footrot is highly contagious, and the multifaceted treatment involves:

  • Preventing disease spread — Affected sheep and goats should be quarantined, and appropriate measures taken to prevent disease spread on boots, vehicles, feeders, hoof trimmers, and handlers’ hands.
  • Trimming hooves — Affected sheep and goats’ hooves should be trimmed to remove excess tissue that is an ideal place for bacterial growth. 
  • Footbathing — After being trimmed, affected sheep and goats should stand in a medicated foot bath for at least five minutes, and their hooves dried before they are released. This treatment can be repeated two to four times a week, depending on disease severity.
  • Providing systemic antibiotics — Systemic antibiotics may be necessary to resolve the condition.

Footrot prevention in sheep and goats

Prevention is the best way to control footrot in sheep and goats. Strategies include:

  •  Selectively adding to your herd — Don’t purchase sheep or goats who have footrot or are from an infected herd. 
  • Quarantining new animals — Isolate new sheep and goats for 30 days before introducing them to your herd.
  • Trimming and treating new animals — Trim all new sheep and goats, and stand them in a medicated foot bath before releasing them to your herd.
  • Providing good drainage — Ensure your pastures and paddocks drain well to prevent muddy conditions.
  • Practicing good hygiene — Clean and disinfect facilities, pens, and transport vehicles regularly.
  • Routinely trimming — Implement routine hoof trimming and footbathing.
  • Regular inspection — Inspect your herd regularly for lameness and other footrot signs to minimize potential infection spread.
  • Vaccinating — Vaccines against certain D. nodosus strains are available that provide four to six months of protection and may also facilitate healing in infected feet. These vaccines tend to be expensive, and they can cause injection site granulomas and abscesses, so consult with our veterinary professionals whether vaccinations could benefit your herd.

Footrot is a serious issue for sheep and goats, but you can take steps to protect your herd. If you are struggling with a footrot infection in your herd, contact our team at Leatherstocking Veterinary Services, so we can help eradicate the problem.