Foot faults keep vets on their toes

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ASK any vet in general practice which of an animal‘s body parts they spend most time treating and you will get an assortment of answers.

Heart, joints, guts and ears will all be right up the list. In the case of my colleague Jane, the answer would be dog’s bottoms. However, one slightly unexpected response might be feet. With the exception of snakes and fish, foot problems are a common presentation in all species we see.

The foot is adapted to perform a number of specialised functions. Feet are used to climb, kick, fight, catch, hold and kill, manipulate, dig, scratch and swim. When, through domestication, we are requiring an animal’s foot to perform a function for which it has not evolved or are preventing it from doing something for which it is designed, problems arise. Wild canines and felines lead active lives without manicures and pedicures, but pet cats and dogs with less opportunity to run, hunt, or dig may not prove so self-sufficient. Exercise on hard surfaces or a scratching post can prove beneficial.

Horse owners are aware of laminitis and pus in the foot, problems rarely seen in wild equines. The equine team runs lameness clinics and in conjunction with local farriers, corrective shoeing. Foot issues represent some of the greatest welfare concerns in sheep and cattle, yet they are not seen in wild sheep or wild buffalo.

Exotics patients present an array of considerations. Recent cases include pelicans with infections of webbed feet and a gecko losing toes after an incomplete skin shed. Falconers recognise bacterial infection bumble foot and take the early signs very seriously. The condition is caused largely by birds consistently weight bearing on the same part of each toe because of restricted pouches of uniform length. Moderate to severe cases often require surgery which forces the bird to increase its weight bearing on the healthy foot and predispose it to the same lesions.

Foot issues in parrots are less common, but can be more problematic in that the foot doubles as a dextrous hand. A parrot stands on one foot while holding foodstuffs to the beak. Being so reliant on both feet, damage to either can present real difficulties. Matilda is a cockatoo. A length of thread became caught around her leg and cut off the blood supply, causing dry gangrene. Reluctantly we were forced to amputate. Matilda never looked back. Watching her as she rocks onto her stump, uses her beak to place food in her remaining foot, where she holds it while her beak and tongue go to work, it is apparent that while healthy feet are important, a healthy brain is even better.

Sam Prescott, Director and Senior Vet