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Good treatment options for septic arthritis in cattle

Surgery often gives animal several more productive years

A case of septic arthritis that has ruptured into a wound.

Very often we have a farm call or a cow is brought in with an unrelenting lameness the producer has treated two or three times for “footrot” but to no avail. The cow is often bearing almost no weight on the leg.

While simple footrot is blamed the real cause of lameness is septic arthritis. There are treatment options often providing very favourable outcomes. A telltale sign: the infection breaks out in a claw resulting in draining just above the coronary band on the affected side.

Infection has gotten into the last joint on the claw and because this infection is in an enclosed space the pain is intense. Little to no weight bearing occurs on the entire foot. A crack in the hoof, deep foot rot or sole abscess, or a penetrating wound can all lead to infection being introduced into the joint. Rarely a blood-borne infection (septicemia) will localize here, but generally it occurs in the higher joints such as the stifle or carpus. These infections are more commonly seen in the outside front claw and secondly in the inside rear claw.

There are four possible courses of action with a septic arthritis. If the cow or bull is older shipping for slaughter is a possibility provided no antibiotics have been given.

Second, long-term antibiotics can on occasion allow the joint to fuse, meaning the infection eats away the cartilage and the two bones fuse together much like you would have with a fracture repair. The toes will appear club-like but function is maintained.

The third scenario involves freezing the foot and actually drilling out the joint. This area is flushed with antibiotics or betadine and also allowed to fuse. There is quite a bit of pain with the treatment so painkillers are often administered.

Claw amputation

The fourth action involves a claw amputation. This gives quick relief from the pain, has a good long-term outcome and is fairly easy for most veterinarians to perform. Here is what to expect.

If a decision is made to perform a claw amputation the animal can be tranquilized and laid down or lightly sedated standing in a squeeze chute or on a tilt table. The affected claw is scrubbed and the whole foot is frozen with what we call a regional IV block. A tourniquet is placed around the foot to keep the lidocaine in the area but also to control bleeding during the procedure. Once we have good anesthesia the claw is amputated at an angle to ensure we remove above the infection. This leaves a larger open wound which is bandaged tightly with an antibiotic ointment. The tourniquet is removed. I like to leave the patient in the chute a minute or so to insure blood is not leaking through the bandage as sometimes certain areas have to be more tightly wrapped.

They are always given NSAIDs of some sort like banamine and I often cover with long-acting antibiotics and have the producer change the bandage once after four days repeat the antibiotics and that is about all. The stump will have a bit of local infection which is just washed off. Most of the time they recover uneventfully and the stump gets closed over.

With claw amputations there are a few precautions. I don’t advise amputating the back claws of breeding bulls. The breeding pressure will cause the other claw to break down so shipping might be advised here. Cows will last several years before the other claw may start to show tendon stretching. The cow may need a trim on the good claw a little more often than her herdmates but that is about all.

Consider this procedure next time you have a cow diagnosed with a septic arthritis. You will be pleased with the results and it will save you from shipping an otherwise productive cow, with several years more productive life.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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