Learn more about hoof care


Dr. med. vet. Dörte Döpfer, MSc, PhD, Food Animal Production Medicine Section,
School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Wisconsin in Madison

Dörte Döpfer, Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin - Madison,
is a veterinarian, epidemiologist and microbiologist by training. Among her research
interests, epidemiology of digital dermatitis (heel warts) in cattle has led to research
about the best-practice for hoof bathing to prevent and control digital dermatitis in cattle.

What causes digital dermatitis?

Dr. Dörte Döpfer

What is digital dermatitis (DD)?

  • Symptoms:
    • Ulcerative stage: red strawberry-like lesion at the skin-horn border of the cattle’s hoof.
    • Chronic stage: thickened skin not normal to the touch, packed with bacteria
  • The main bacteria causing digital dermatitis are the spiral-shaped treponemes, from the family of spirochetes
  • Other names for digital dermatitis: Strawberry heels, Heel warts, Mortellaro’s disease, Italian footrot.
  • High prevalence: 95-100% of cattle farms affected by digital dermatitis.

Symptoms and stages of bovine digital dermatitis lesions (Berry et al., 2012)

Stages Symptoms
M1 Small (<2 cm across) focal active state. Circumscribed lesion.
M2 Larger (>2 cm across) ulcerative active stage. Can be painful
M3 Healing stage
M4 Chronic stage. Surface is raised by tan, brown, black, rubbery, irregular, proliferative hyperkeratonic growths that vary from papilliform to mass-like projections.
M4.1 Chronic stage with smal active painful M1 focus.

Why do most measures fail to eliminate digital dermatitis in cows?

  • Digital dermatitis is often wrongly considered as a short-term disease that needs short-term intervention. A change of awareness is needed.
  • Digital dermatitis is a long-term disease that can result in long-term consequences.
  • A long-term integrated strategy is necessary for the management of digital dermatitis.

What is the best treatment strategy to deal with digital dermatitis in cattle?

  • Early detection of lesions and prompt topical treatment
  • Group hoof disinfection with hoof baths
  • Risk factor management

What can increase the risk of having problems with digital dermatitis?

  • Risk factors impacting the severity of digital dermatitis include:
    • Introduction of infected cows in a healthy herd
    • Introduction of healthy heifers in a contaminated dairy cattle herd
    • No hoof care for dry cows

Why should hoof baths be used for cattle?

  • Foot baths are used to disinfect cow hooves for the prevention of digital dermatitis.
  • Foot baths are important for the well-being of the cows.

What would be the best hoof bath protocol?

  • A "one size fits all" foot bath protocol does not exist.
  • The best strategy:
    • Bring down the number of infected hooves in highly contaminated herds (topical treatment + foot baths).
    • At the manageable stage of the disease, use a sustainable foot bath solution.

What should be known about Copper sulfate used in hoof baths?

  • Copper sulfate toxicity: problematic for the environment
  • Copper sulfate salts seem to have an effect upon preventing digital dermatitis.

What should be known about Formalin used in hoof baths?

  • Formalin toxicity : carcinogenic
  • Formalin is biodegradable.

What qualities should a sustainable hoof bath have?

  • A sustainable foot bath represents an alternative to traditional chemicals when:
    • It has no environmental impact.
    • It has no effect on worker’s health.
    • It can kill hoof pathogens.
    • It has no harmful consequences on the cow's health and well-being.

What's the problem with chronic infections, and what's the solution?

  • Chronic infections represent reservoir of infections.
  • A sustainable hoof care product that can help decrease chronic lesions with no increase of ulcerative lesions is the ideal solution.

How well do hoof bath solutions kill hoof pathogens?

  • Chemicals (including a botanical foot bath solution) showed efficacy against hoof pathogens:
    • At short contact times
    • At prolonged contact times
    • In the presence of organic matter

Dr Dörte Döpfer, what's your take home message?

  • Digital dermatitis needs your attention, it is not a short term disease.
  • Digital dermatitis has long term severe impacts on the well-being of the cows (beef or dairy cattle).
  • If you care for your cows, you need a long-term strategy against digital dermatitis.