Limping Livestock: Two Perspectives

A limping pig or cow conjures different ideas in the head of an uninitiated member of the public and a farmer. The distinctions are explored here by two South Dakota University experts.
calendar icon 15 April 2014
clock icon 5 minute read

Lameness can be attributed to many factors yet the physical response to favor a limb is likely related to the animal’s pain threshold, say Heidi Carroll, livestock expert  and Russ Daly, Associate Professor and Extension Veterinarian. 

The presence of pain is a critical well-being concern, and can have many secondary impacts on the animal’s overall health, production, and functional lifetime, writes Mrs Carroll.

Some examples of secondary impacts known in livestock include: a decline in feed intake or grazing ability, loss of body condition, reduced reproduction rates, or chronic lameness.

Identifying lameness and the signs of pain that affect an animal’s well-being becomes a point of misunderstanding between stockmen and the general public due to an individual’s perceived understanding of animal well-being and the needs of the animal.

When assessing animal well-being, one can evaluate the animal’s living environment or the housing facilities (non-animal/resource based measures) or make direct observations of the animal’s condition and behavior (animal-based measures).

Animal-based measures are believed to be a better indicator of how the animal is coping within the environment and husbandry system in which it lives. An expert panel was surveyed to determine the most important animal-based measures of well-being for cattle (dairy specifically), pigs, and poultry.

Observed lameness was the indicator most frequently identified for cattle and pigs. Currently, lameness and feet/leg soundness problems are among the top reasons for culling sows, cows, and sheep.

Other reasons recorded for culling animals may include one of the secondary impacts of lameness, most frequently reproductive problems because they have the greatest impact on the sustainable profitability of the operation.

Additionally, lameness should be considered an important animal-based measure of well-being for horses. Since even the untrained eye can detect limps or see an animal struggling on three legs, it is important to consider what the general public perceives when a limping animal is seen in a pasture or farmyard along with the stockman’s perspective.

In the Stockman’s Mind

A stockman provides for an animal’s daily needs to promote optimal health and well-being. Strong animal husbandry skills contribute to wholesome animal products in our food supply, adds Mrs Carroll.

When an animal is observed to be lame, the stockman’s perspective usually focuses on actions for health intervention. An experienced stockman will go through a rapid decision process to determine the best management practices for treatment and full recovery of the animal.

  • Is the animal still eating and behaving normally? (A stockman should know what normal looks like)
  • What is the best way to catch and restrain the animal, so it can be examined more closely?
  • Does the veterinarian need to be called or is it a known ailment that can be easily treated?
  • What is the best course of treatment, or management practice, to resolve the animal’s aliment?
  • Should the animal be isolated in a more comfortable location, or can it be returned to the group?
  • How can the stockman best monitor the animal during its recovery?
  • How can the stockman record and document this treatment?

In the Public’s Eye

People find satisfaction seeing animals in their communities. One of the most peaceful pictures of South Dakota’s landscape is a group of cows, horses, or sheep grazing, and the public perceives those animals to be happy and healthy.

South Dakota is blessed to have livestock from border to border and interspersed amongst urban communities. Since the public shares their backyard with livestock, stockmen should consider how the public’s perspective of animal well-being may differ from their perspective when an animal is seen limping.

Realize that the public’s experiences with lameness and subsequent pain is most likely through an association with human aliments including tissue bruising, skin cuts, and bone fractures, so they empathize with the animal from that point of view.

  • The animal is in pain and should be administered something to relieve that pain.
  • The animal is uncomfortable and should be given a soft area to recover and assistance to move easier.
  • Why did the animal begin to limp…did it receive proper care to prevent this problem?
  • The animal is hurt and there is no stockman in sight; when was the last time the animals were checked?
  • The animal is experiencing unnecessary physical and mental stress -- this is a well-being issue.

The public may think in terms of comfort level and empathize with the animal’s pain, whereas a stockman may think more in terms of a quick recovery back to normal physical condition and performance.

Maybe from a different angle both mindsets still have the best interest of the animal at heart. The faster an animal recovers, the less time it spends in a state of compromised well-being (discomfort).

This means a return to performing its natural behaviors resulting in improved efficiencies in the production of the meat and milk we all enjoy as part of a healthy diet. For horses, this may translate to a quick return to work on the ranch, the trail, or the show ring.

Stockmen should remember that sound health care practices for food animals can result in healthier animals free from discomfort that require lower treatment costs (e.g. medications, veterinary visits, time/labor) and promote improved production efficiencies.

Consumers benefit from the stockman’s responsible animal care practices by having a bounty of different food products available at an affordable cost with the peace of mind knowing the animals that produced that food received optimal care throughout their life.

In addition, they should feel more confident that caretakers of animals in our communities watch their animals closely each day for signs of pain and implement best management practices to promote a healthy, comfortable life for the animal and inevitably a wholesome food supply for everyone.

Hopefully, this small comparison of perspectives can help us remember that not everyone views the world through the same eyes and experiences. Regardless of animal species or their role in our society (for work, pleasure, show, or food), addressing a simple limp will maintain or improve the animal’s state of well-being and minimize the negative secondary effects on the animal.

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