Animal husbandry is a fascinating subject. It encompasses everything from exercise and nutrition, to animal welfare and veterinary care. It almost goes without saying that a well-nourished, well-exercised, mentally stimulated animal will need less veterinary care and have a better quality of life.
As anyone who owns or works with horses knows, healthy feet are paramount for a healthy animal. I remember thinking, even in undergrad, that lameness was the black plague of the equestrian world — well, together with colic. Just the idea that it could be present is so feared that it can spark hysteria in a crowd. (Go ahead, try it, I dare you: Whisper the word “laminitis” in a room full of horse people. Step back and witness the pandemonium.)
But healthy hooves are important for any hoofstock, be they domesticated like sheep and alpacas, or zoo animals like wildebeest and zebras. However, the conditions under which domesticated and zoo species live vary in many ways, and combined with the variance in their genetics, hoof problems are more commonly seen in domesticated species. For one thing, we keep many thousands more sheep than wildebeest in the US, so the incidence of any type of hoof disease will occur more often in sheep merely because there are so many more of them. More diseases can exist in a large population, and the chances that a particular disease moves from one group of sheep to another is also greater. The transmission of infectious footrot (caused by Fusobacterium necrophorum and Dichelobacter nodosus) is a great example of a disease passed along on the feet of animals as they move from one flock to another. Furthermore, greater numbers of sheep are housed together, which means more manure, more fecal bacteria, and more moisture. Dirty conditions increase the chances of a hoof disease outbreak, because there is a heavier concentration of bugs present, and because a herdsman can’t easily visually detect a hoof problem if all the sheep feet are covered in mud.
Many aspects of husbandry contribute to healthy feet: nutrition, a clean environment, regular and adequate movement, regular veterinary care, etc. There are certainly many other important aspects of animal husbandry, but as a future vet, it’s amazing how much pain can be prevented simply by ensuring healthy hooves.