Lameness in ruminants

Unravelling the role of the foot skin microbiome in infectious lameness in ruminants.

George Oikonomou, Professor of Cattle Health and Welfare at the University of Liverpool, recently collaborated with University colleagues Dr Jennifer Duncan, Senior Lecturer and Dr Nick Evans, studying the role of the foot skin microbiome in infectious lameness in ruminants.

These studies aimed to:

  1. Examine the role of the foot skin microbiota in the development of bovine and ovine digital dermatitis lesions
  2. Investigate the genomic regions that are linked to lameness associated traits and foot skin microbiota profiles.


Lameness is an intractable challenge facing the livestock production industry; it remains highly prevalent among cattle herds and sheep flocks in both the UK and worldwide, seriously compromising animal welfare and farms’ productivity and sustainability.

Digital Dermatitis (DD) is a painful, infectious, foot skin disease that compromises the welfare of hundreds of millions of ruminants. In addition to pain and compromised animal welfare, DD is also associated with reduced milk yield, feed intake, and reproductive performance, estimated to cost the UK dairy industry more than £74 million per year[1].


The study carried out by Professor Oikonomou involved 251 cows from three different UK dairy farms. Foot microbiome profiles of lameness associated lesions were determined using 16S ribosomal RNA gene sequencing and shotgun metagenomics. These are common sequencing methods used to identify and compare bacteria within a given sample.

The study highlighted differences in the foot skin microbiome profiles of clinically healthy animals that were associated with subsequent development of digital dermatitis. The cows which did not acquire lesions during the study had significantly different foot skin microbiota profiles from those which did acquire lesions. 

A similar approach was applied to study the changes in the composition of the microbiome of sheep’s feet affected by contagious ovine digital dermatitis in a longitudinal study of a naturally occurring outbreak of Contagious Ovine Digital Dermatitis (CODD) in a sheep flock.


The research study suggests that it is possible that preventative treatment, targeting the maintenance of the microbial diversity in the bovine foot skin, may be successful in halting the development of digital dermatitis. It could also inform future studies that may lead to the identification of probiotic candidates and eventually to the development of novel preventive or treatment solutions.

This work also provides the first evidence that it may be possible to use selective breeding to change foot-skin microbiota profiles and reduce host susceptibility in this disease.

The study also provided novel insights into the poly-bacterial aetiology of CODD which will be used to inform further studies on specific molecular diagnostic laboratory tests for the disease and support the evidence base for treatment of the disease.

Read more about the University of Liverpool’s research expertise in animal microbiome

[1] Willshire J.A. & Bell N.J. - An economic review of cattle lameness (2009)


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