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Written by leading veterinarians to provide you with the information you need to care for your pets.

The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

Happy Feet, Part 2

Last week we talked about horse feet and shoeing. This week, let’s look at what basic hoof care entails for cattle and small ruminants such as sheep and goats.

Like horses, other four-legged livestock have hooves made of continually growing keratin. However, have you ever heard of a blacksmith coming out and trimming cow feet? I would suspect not. Let’s look at what these species need to maintain healthy feet.

Cattle are a grazing species, and as such, spend a large amount of time on pasture. When not on pasture, they are in a feedlot, sometimes with concrete floors. Normally, the amount of walking these cattle do is enough to keep their hooves adequately worn down. Dairy cattle, however, sometimes do not have this luxury. Additionally, dairy cattle on average are kept alive longer than a standard beef cow raised for meat, allowing more time for lameness issues to arise. Overall, foot problems are seen more frequently in dairy cows than in food cows (i.e., beef cows). As such, there are people who specialize in trimming cow hooves.

You may be wondering how one goes about trimming a cow hoof. Usually, it’s via the use of a handy contraption called a “tilt table.”  Since cows are not nearly as obliging in picking up their feet as horses, the safest and most efficient way to get good access to a cow’s foot is to strap her to a large table that stands vertically and tilt it horizontally so she’s lying on her side. Although this may sound strange, most dairy cows handle this “tilt-a-whirl” pretty well.

Once in position, the cattle podiatrist will normally have an electric tool that resembles a small sander in order to grind down excess hoof growth. Many dairy cows have problems with hoof rot, heel warts, corkscrew-shaped hooves, and hoof abscesses, so the tilt table is a great way to diagnose the problem and implement treatment, like lancing an abscess and wrapping the hoof.

While we’re on the topic, here’s a fun fact: cows (like sheep and goats and pigs) have cloven hooves, meaning they have two separate hooves on each foot, unlike a horse, which has one. These two hooves on each foot are called “claws” and are anatomically referred to as the “lateral” or “medial” claw depending on its relationship with the rest of the body.

Sheep and goats are much less hassle when it comes to hoof care, mainly due to their much more convenient size. However, they tend to require hoof care more regularly than dairy cattle, so they may only need a visit to the tilt table once or twice a year, or only if there is a lameness problem.

Sheep and goats can easily have their hooves trimmed with a simple tool called a hoof nipper, which looks a bit like a small pair of pruning shears. Learning how to trim goat and sheep feet is easy — overgrown hoof wall needs to be trimmed away so that the hoof wall runs parallel to the sole and a smooth solar surface is created. Many of my sheep and goat patients do not have adequate rough ground to roam around on (seems like they need the equivalent of the Scottish Highlands), so they require quite frequent hoof trims, often every few months.

It’s funny, but some goats remind me of certain dogs when it comes to nail trimming: they scream and holler and try to run away or throw themselves down in an overly-dramatic heap when it comes time to hoof trims. Some of these goats even know what the hoof nipper looks like and will run away before I can even get my hands on them! These are the “stinker goats” and they require a lot of patience, some quick hands, and a capable handler. However, the most important tool to have when trimming the hooves of any animal is a sense of humor.

Llamas and alpacas also require regular hoof trims; again because at least in my part of the country (Maryland) there isn’t enough rugged ground to wear down hooves naturally. You clip camelid hooves with the same tool and mostly in the same way as with small ruminants. And definitely beware of drama queen camelids — they hate having their feet touched and, usually, after an afternoon trimming alpaca feet, I’ve been spit on several times.

Just another day’s work to ensure happy feet.

Dr. Anna O’Brien

Image: ylq / via Shutterstock

Comments  1

Leave Comment
  • Drama Queens
    03/22/2013 05:36pm

    "they scream and holler and try to run away or throw themselves down in an overly-dramatic heap when it comes time to hoof trims."

    Now I'm going to have to search YouTube for a video of this. It sounds hysterical You have to feel at least a little sorry, though, because the critter is probably in a panic.

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