When Limping is Not a Sign of Sheep Foot Rot

What I Learned About a Sheep Illness Known as False Foot Rot

When Limping is Not a Sign of Sheep Foot Rot

Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Laurie Ball-Gisch – Don’t you just love how sheep keep teaching us what we never knew we needed to know? The past lambing season was one in which I got an advanced education in “Sheep Feet 101.” Thankfully (and knock on wood) we have not had sheep foot rot on the farm. For that, I am extremely grateful. And even though this article is about limping sheep, I am not going to discuss sheep foot rot, foot scald, white line disease or sheep bloat. Those are sheep illnesses you can easily read about in any books that cover basic sheep information. Here I want to share foot problems that you don’t find easily in the standard shepherd manuals.


Last spring I discovered a two-week-old ram lamb limping, holding a front foot up in the air and walking on the remaining three feet. Actually, he was able to run quite fast on those remaining three legs and for the next week, I felt pretty foolish running around daily, trying to corner and catch such a small three-legged lamb that could still outrun and outsmart me!

Even multiple cases of limping in a flock may not be from sheep foot rot, foot scald, or wounds.

When I was finally able to catch him, I carefully checked his foot (leg and shoulder, also) and could not see anything obviously wrong with the foot. The next day he was still limping, so I checked again (once again having to give chase). It wasn’t until the fourth day of checking the foot that I discovered pus oozing between his toes. I was able to squeeze the pus and discovered a small puncture wound between the hoof wall and the pad of his hoof. It had taken several days for the wound to fester enough that I could finally see what was wrong.

The way that we ended up treating this was to squeeze the pus out and then wash the wound out well with warm water and soap. Then I applied some Neosporin and sprayed on some “liquid bandage” to try to seal the wound from contamination. After a couple of coats of the “liquid (spray-on) bandage”, we also sprayed a coat of BlueKote to further protect the foot. Additionally, we gave the lamb PenG for five days to make sure that the infection did not go systemic. We repeated this for several more days and at the end of about a week, he was able to put weight on his foot again. He hasn’t limped since and he’s now a stud in our ram pen.


Imagine my total surprise and dismay to walk out the day after first finding the limping ram lamb to discover a ewe lamb also limping and holding her foot up in the air! At that point, I felt a bit of panic, and dismay since I’d not, in the previous five years of lambing, ever had to treat any lamb for an injured or problematic foot. However, when I picked up this lamb and ran my hand down the front of her leg, I discovered a large pus-filled “sac” just between and at the top of (and in front of) where the toes of her foot meet. I had never seen anything like that and all I had to do was apply very minor pressure and the pus came squirting out, like squeezing a pimple. I took her inside and bathed her foot, applied some antibiotic and also treated her with PenG. I had no idea why her foot was infected.

I happened to be talking to a shepherdess friend that afternoon and mentioned my two limping lambs. When I described the second lamb’s foot, telling her that I had no clue what it was, she laughed at me and said, “don’t you know about the scent gland between the toes of sheep?” Well, now I do! And apparently, it can get infected. The treatment I applied worked for the ewe lamb and in fact, she was not limping at all by the next day. Once the pressure was released and the scent “gland/canal” was cleaned out, she was fine.

Even multiple cases of limping in a flock may not be from sheep foot rot, foot scald, or wounds.

Another Case

A couple of weeks later I saw an adult ewe limping and she was also holding a front foot up in the air. I managed to catch her and sure enough, her “scent gland” was pus-filled. But at least now I knew what it was and how to treat it. It’s now nine months later (as I write this) and I haven’t had any other sheep limp since. Why three sheep in one short time period ended up having foot problems, I do not know. That will remain a mystery.

False Sheep Foot Rot

But recently I found a small collection of Successful Farming magazines from 1926-1927 in an antique shop. The magazines are great fun to read. The other night, as I was looking through one of the issues, an article titled “False Footrot of Sheep” caught my eye. The credit for the article was listed as Dr. A.X.A., Wisconsin. Imagine my surprise when I went on to read the following:

When sheep become very footsore they are not always affected by footrot. When but one or two sheep are severely lame, it may be that false footrot is the cause; but true footrot quickly affects an entire flock.

False footrot is the term applied to that diseased condition in which the lining membrane of the canal at the top of the hoof, which secretes lubricant to prevent friction between the toes, becomes infected so that pus forms and burrows.

The opening of the gland will be found in the hoof head, just above the juncture of the toes, and is surrounded by stiff, upstanding hairs. It sometimes happens that dirt works into the canal and causes irritation; then pus germs invade the affected part and the pus proceeds to undermine the horny wall and destroy the tissues.

The hoof-head in such cases becomes intensely swollen, hot and painful and the sheep carries the affected foot. When an examination is made, one finds an abscess containing stinking pus which first fills the glandular pouch and then forms a much larger sac.

If taken in time, cleansing of the part, free opening of the sac, liberation of pus and swabbing with a 2% solution of mercurochrome may soon be followed by healing and recovery. All loose, rotten or under-run horn must also be cut away.

In severe cases, amputation of a toe may be necessary. In ordinary cases, after treatment consists in keeping the wound well covered with a mixture of equal parts of powdered boric acid, oxide of zinc and subnitrate of bismuth, on sterilized cotton bound on the part with a clean, narrow bandage, and to be renewed daily. Give a sheep immediate treatment when lameness is noticed. (“Successful Farming,” November 1927, page 47).

I find it fascinating that this article about false sheep foot rot, written almost 80 years ago, addressed exactly what I dealt with this spring past. I have not run across any mention of this condition (or even the fact that sheep have a scent gland between their toes) in any of the numerous books on sheep husbandry that sit on my bookshelves. So in addition to the “living laboratory” and hands-on education that my sheep teach me, I find it compelling to read and learn from shepherds past and present who are raising sheep for profit and pleasure.

Originally published in sheep! September / October 2006 and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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