Digital Dermatitis – “plague of the bovine digit”

Published 14 November 13

Dr Roger Blowey reminisced that over 30 years ago, during the 1982 conference, Digital Dermatitis (DD) was highlighted as the ‘plague of the bovine digit’; it was first reported in the UK just five years later. In the intervening time, how far have we progressed in understanding the disease and how it is transmitted?

Dr Blowey says the way digital dermatitis is transmitted remains unknown, although globally, this remains the subject of much research.  He says the bacteria has been detected on both hands and hoof knives, and urges that routine disinfection of both between animals. 

Researchers from Liverpool University have described how the Treponeme bug associated with digital dermatitis is able to alter gene transcription, resulting in the production of proteins that downgrade the immune system and allow the Treponeme to survive.

Until answers are found, Professor Döpfer from Wisconsin University urges that farms should implement an integrated prevention and control programme which should start with the calves, because animals are more predisposed to become infected at a young age.  

Prof Döpfer suggests daily walks through the housing during feeding to monitor the digital dermatitis status of the herd, which will also monitor the efficacy of the footbathing programme.

She says:  “When you lift a foot to treat digital dermatitis topically, you are too late as by this time, the infection is deep into the first layer of the skin and sometimes even deeper where it can’t be seen,”  Prof Döpfer provided her expert opinion on whether to wrap digital dermatitis lesions or not. 

“It’s not necessary if the cow is going back into a clean pen, but if farmers do decide to wrap then ensure it is wrapped loosely so that it will fall off naturally after two days.”  Finally, she says minimising contact between cows’ feet and slurry where possible, plus regular footbathing, will continue to be important in reducing DD cases.

There is a strong consensus that footbathing is the most effective way to prevent and treat digital dermatitis in your herd – but far less agreement on the optimum dimensions for footbaths.

The key, says Jo Speed, is to ensure that the hoof is fully dipped as the more frequent the dipping, the more successful the treatment.  Neil Chesterson, a New Zealand vet who has spent over 30 years researching and studying lame cows, shares his experience of designing footbaths for large grazing herds here

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