Heel Horn Erosion

Heel horn erosion, or 'slurry heel', is recognised by the damage to the surface of the bulb of the heel. Actual evidence of mobility problems due to the condition may not be present unless it becomes severe. It is often linked to interdigital dermatitis, in that both conditions are prevalent under poor hygienic conditions in housed dairy herds and tend to be particularly found towards the end of the winter.

In intensively managed dairy herds, particularly where subclinical laminitis is often present, the soft horn covering the bulb becomes vulnerable to direct bacterial attack, principally from pathogens existing in slurry and muck, as well as damage from a variety of irritant chemicals also present in slurry. Standing in wet conditions also softens hoof horn, particularly heel horn, and makes this region of the foot even more vulnerable.

Pitted and damaged areas of the sole facilitate the bacterial invasion into the heel area and a massive destruction of the horn of the heel can occur. In some cases, ridges, layers, and deep black and concentric grooves are seen in the heels.

The erosion of heel tissue interferes with the hoof's shock absorption properties, and as a result the cow throws more and more weight further forward, altering its gait and causing more pressure to be placed on other parts of the foot; a common concurrent lesion is a sole ulcer due to the altered gait.

Prevention and Treatment

As feet exposed to slurry appear to have a higher incidence of eroded sole and heel tissue than those that are kept clean and dry, ensuring as practicably as possible that cows' feet are kept in hygienic conditions is essential, and effective slurry management is paramount. Regular foot bathing in a chemical solution such as dilute formalin will help to control the pathogens responsible for heel erosion when cattle are housed; regular competent foot trimming to remove any pitted or damaged areas in which infection can become easily trapped is also an effective preventative measure.

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