Many farmers rarely pay attention to the health of their animals’ hooves. This is based on assumption the hoof is a hardy and perhaps a dead tissue – that is not true. The hoof; though consisting of a dead outer wall, it is a living part of the animal.

Cows, goats, sheep and pigs are cloven animals; meaning they have hoof that has two toes on each hoof – actually they are similar to human third and fourth toes; this is unlike in horse and donkey where the hoof is a single structure. The basic structures of the hoof are fairly similar within these two groups. The inner anatomy of the hoof is a little bit complex; with a series of small bones joined together by ligaments and pockets of synovial fluid that reduce the friction between the bones.

There is a little bit of flesh, nerves and blood vessels and a skin covering. The outer bit is what you see as the hard hoof; there is a softer sole which forms the lower most part in touch with the ground.

The sole is not as hard and therefore a weak point for puncturing injuries that serve as entry points for micro-organisms into the softer tissues.

For cloven animals; the inter-digital skin in the inter-digital cleft is another weak point; foot rot and other physical injuries originate from this point. It is this arrangement of short bones that easily brings into question fractures, the rich nervous network around the hooves and the great pressure of the animal weight magnifies a slight hoof injury which is very painful to the animal. Hoofed animals will not function or produce maximally when they have a hoof problem. The hoofs play a critical role of supporting the entire animal’s weight.

Thus when a hoof is sick; the animal is unable to walk properly, will be in distress and may not produce as much milk or give as much draught power. Good hoof care programme is therefore of paramount importance. Such a programme will greatly reduce incidences of hoof problem. Hooves naturally grow and the sole wears out as the animal moves around; if this wearing out doesn’t occur hoof overgrowth will result. Hoof overgrowth is common in zero grazed animals kept at a soft floor with little friction. Hoof trimming is recommended after every six months in cows, sheep and goats while in draught and racing animals like donkey and horse it is to be done every six to ten weeks. The objective of hoof trimming is to restore normal weight bearing on the hoof.

The hoof should have its natural shape that allows the animal to equally distribute its weight on all parts of the hoof. The process of doing hoof trimming is a bit complex, involving geometric accuracies and requires an experienced veterinarian’s hand.

Most hoof diseases result from poor animal husbandry, as they are normally precipitated by injuries to the hoof. Nutrition plays a critical role in hoof health zinc and biotin are especially important, although other conditions like acidosis which originates from excess easily digestible carbohydrates in the rumen may have far reaching effects on the hoof. Laminitis affects the walking surface of the hoof and also the soles; it can be very painful forcing the animal to lay down most of the time when forced to walk especially on concrete the animal will be appear lame. Foot rot and interdigital dermatitis are examples of some diseases that affect hooves of animals that spend a lot of time in muddy, dirty and damp conditions.

They are all characterised by lameness, redness of the inter digital skin and foul smell due to the wound in the hoof. These diseases can be prevented by hoof trimming and good animal husbandry. Treatment involves use of topical sprays or foot baths with dry agents like zinc sulfate.

Rough concrete floors have been shown to increase wear of hooves and in effect cause overgrowth. Animals with overgrown hooves cause uneven spread of weight on hooves predisposing it to injuries and diseases. Wet floors soften the hoof and expose it to injuries. Cows and shoats are land animals and prefer soft surfaces for walking. But when floors are too soft they reduce normal wear and lead to overgrowth. When you observe hoof problems, it may be a result of flooring and a change maybe a good preventive measure.

– JOSEPH OTHIENO: a veterinary surgeon working with the Kenya Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Council – (KENTTEC).

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