Diagnosis of Bovine Digital Dermatitis: Exploring the Usefulness of Indirect ELISA

João Sucena Afonso, Georgios Oikonomou, Stuart Carter, Helen Clough, Bethany E. Griffiths and Jonathan Rushton of the University of Liverpool, have collaborated on  the now published article Diagnosis of Bovine Digital Dermatitis: Exploring the Usefulness of Indirect ELISA.


Lameness is the second most important health condition in dairy cattle in the UK in terms of production losses and the most important welfare issue (1). Lameness is a symptom rather than a disease which can have different aetiologies, from infectious to non-infectious causes (2).

Bovine digital dermatitis (BDD) is a leading cause of infectious lameness in British dairy cattle, causing ulcerative skin lesions, with significant impact on animal production and welfare. The impact of BDD is associated with the stage of the disease. Acute ulcerative phases are more likely to result in a change in the behaviour of the cow due to pain, leading to a reduction in milk yield and fertility. Animals chronically affected by digital dermatitis can perpetuate the disease in the herd, acting as pathogen reservoirs and contributing to the establishment of an endemic nature of the ailment, which can result in premature culling of animals and added costs to control and eradicate the disease (34). Identifying the stage of the disease is thus important to inform the treatment and control strategy (5) and to allow for the proper estimation of the economic impact of BDD.

Different methods are currently used to capture data related to BDD. Herd mobility scoring is a screening tool widely used to identify animals afflicted by lameness, followed by clinical investigation of the underlying cause and treatment. Yet mobility scoring is subjective and prone to intra- and inter-observer bias (26). Additionally, the presence of BDD lesion(s) is not always associated with lameness, which could lead to the underreporting of the problem (7). The reference for detecting and classifying BDD is the clinical observation of lifted hooves in a foot trimming chute. In addition to being labour-intensive and expensive, this unavoidable routine, meant for adequate cleaning and examination to be carried, causes stress to the animal (89). Additionally, some cases with less obvious lesions can be overlooked (10). As such, researchers have suggested alternative approaches for monitoring BDD, including visual inspection during milking routine at the parlour (89), and investigated the use of infrared thermography to identify animals with lesions (11). Unfortunately, these tend to have a lower diagnostic capacity when compared to the reference (12).

Research has suggested that Treponema species are a key pathogen triggering the pathogenic cascade that leads to the establishment of the disease (1315). The immunologic response to the presence of these pathogens can be assessed through serology which could stand as a more objective and practical alternative tool of identifying animals with BDD when compared to the current reference diagnostic method (16). A study by Frössling et al., (17) found that the presence of serum anti-Treponema antibodies assessed through indirect ELISA could be used with high sensitivity and specificity for the identification of BDD presence at animal and herd levels. Additionally, the results from serology with milk samples from the bulk tank showed good agreement with those from individual cows, suggesting a potential use as a screening tool at herd level (17). The usefulness of indirect enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) as a diagnostic tool in identifying BDD clinical stages has been previously assessed in dairy heifers through the measurement of anti-Treponema antibodies. The study found that the mean anti-Treponema antibody titres for animals experiencing a DD lesion for the first time increased by 56% when compared to results before the onset of the disease. Additionally, animals treated with oxytetracycline for a DD acute lesion had their anti-Treponema antibodies titres decreased to levels closer to those of animals without DD lesions after an average of 223 days (18).

The main aim of this paper was to assess whether indirect ELISA is suitable for the diagnosis and severity assessment of bovine digital dermatitis. It also explored the value of the test as a predicting tool of the future occurrence of BDD lesion by hypothesizing a time lag between the exposure to Treponema spp. and the development of clinical signs of disease. Finally, we made use of the available data to explore risk factors for the occurrence of BDD.

Congratulations on the publication of this article: Diagnosis of bovine digital dermatitis: exploring the usefulness of indirect ELISA, by João Sucena Afonso, Georgios Oikonomou, Stuart Carter, Helen Clough, Bethany E Griffiths, Jonathan Rushton, published in Frontiers in Veterinary Science, section Veterinary Experimental and Diagnostic Pathology.

To view the online publication, please click here.