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Get a Better Handle on Digital Dermatitis

May 21, 2020

Taylor Leach

Digital dermatitis, commonly known as hairy heel warts, is an incurable disease caused by an infectious organism called treponeme, a spiral-shaped bacterium commonly found on dairy operations. Clinical signs of this painful disease include raw, red, oval shaped lesions typically found on the back of the cow’s heel and they are prone to animals who consistently have wet, dirty feet.

While there may not be a cure for this lameness causing disease, digital dermatitis can be easy to manage if you know what to look for. During a recent Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin webinar, Gerald Cramer, an associate professor at the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine for the University of Minnesota, spoke on how to maintain a manageable level of hairy heel warts and how to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

Focus on Heifers

“Digital dermatitis control starts with heifers,” Cramer says. “We can control this disease very well in our lactation herd, but if we have heifers coming in with lesions, then we are continually introducing new cases into the herd.”

Unfortunately, if an animal has digital dermatitis early in her life, it will most likely continue to affect her as she enters the milking herd, according to Cramer.

“If [heifers have] no digital dermatitis pre-calving, about 80% of those stay clean in the next lactation,” Cramer says. “If you have one case of digital dermatitis pre-calving, about 50% of those cows stay clean, but the other 50% become repeat offenders. If heifers have multiple cases of digital dermatitis pre-calving, then about 70% of them repeatedly get cases during the first lactation.”

In order to help prevent dermatitis occurring in heifers, Cramer suggests focusing on providing dry bedding and having a sharp eye on the lookout for possible cases. If necessary, it may be beneficial to add a footbath system into the heifer program if cases frequently occur. 

Prioritize Hygiene

To prevent digital dermatitis from occurring in the first place, Cramer stresses the importance of focusing on hygiene. 

“The whole goal of preventing digital dermatitis is to create clean, dry feet,” Cramer says. “This means it is important to look for excess manure in alley ways were animals are constantly standing and to use a proper footbath system.” 

If you use automatic alley scrapers, be sure to monitor the timing at which they run. Cramer advises not running scrapers during herd check when animals are in headlocks to keep them from standing in too much manure. 

When utilizing footbaths, Cramer notes that it is important to aim for an appropriate contact time. A properly designed footbath allows for a more effective application of solution, which in turn can give producers the opportunity to use a less-concentrated solution and reduce the frequency of footbath use. Try to shoot for footbaths that are approximately 8 to 12 feet long to increase the amount of contact time between the hoof and the footbath solution.

Treat Early and Appropriately

Once an animal is infected with digital dermatitis, she will carry the disease with her for the rest of her life. Therefore, the goal for treatment is not to get rid of the disease, but to reduce the pain and maintain the lesion in a “chronic” state that does not worsen, according to Cramer. One way to manage this is through proper footbath use.

“Treat your footbath like a dial,” Cramer says. “The footbath becomes a dial you can use to say, ‘How much digital dermatitis do I want?’ If you have too much digital dermatitis and cases are reoccurring, turn your dial up and use your footbath more frequently.”

However, it is important to monitor how much product you are using during treatment. Too much of a good thing can actually make problems worse. 

“If we use too much cooper sulfate in footbaths at the wrong pH, we can actually induce more chronicity in these lesions,” Cramer advises. “Use the appropriate products at the lowest possible dose.”

One form of treatment that does not necessarily need to be used is the use of footwraps, Cramer says. Studies have shown that statistically there is not much difference in healing rates between animals treated with a footwrap and those who have gone without. Taking off bandages and wraps is not a pleasant job and often requires extra time and labor. 

When it comes to treating digital dermatitis, Cramer suggests doing your homework to find out which products might work best for your herd. There are a lot of products out on the market, take time to evaluate what your needs are and what your budget can afford.


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