Livestock Research for Rural Development 23 (3) 2011 Notes to Authors LRRD Newsletter

Citation of this paper

Housing-design as a predisposing factor for injuries and poor welfare in cattle within smallholder units in periurban areas of Nairobi, Kenya

J W Aleri, J Nguhiu-Mwangi and E M Mogoa

Department of Clinical Studies, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Nairobi,
P.O. Box 29053- 00625, Kangemi, Kenya.


A cross-sectional study was carried out between July and October 2009 on 80 smallholder dairy cattle units selected purposively in the peri-urban areas of Nairobi, Kenya. The objective was to investigate the prevalence of body injuries occurring on dairy cows and to determine housing design-linked risk factors associated with these injuries.  A total of 306 dairy cows were selected using a simple systematic sampling method. They were examined and injuries recorded according to their body locations which included neck, brisket, carpal, hock, rib-cage, tuber coxae, ischial and teat/udder regions. Housing design-features that served as risk factors for the injuries were also recorded. Associations between body injuries and risk factors were established through chi square statistics at p< 0.05 significance level.

The highest prevalence of injuries was over the surface of the hock joint [(260/306) 85%], carpal joint [(230/306) 75.16%], rib-cage [(228/306) 74.51%] and tuber coxae [(204/306) 66.70%]. These were followed by other body regions such as neck [(186/306) 60.78%], brisket [(134/306) 43.79%], ischial [(124/306) 40.52%], and teat/udder [(89/306) 29.10%].    Presence of neck rails had a significant association with injuries on the neck (χ2=20.25, p<0.0001) and the brisket (χ2= 8.14, p=0.0043). Height of the neck rails significantly influenced presence or absence of injuries at the neck (χ2=22.93, p<0.0001) and brisket (χ2=7.37, p=0.025) regions. Also found significant were associations between hock region injuries and narrow walk alleys (χ2=10.68, p<0.001), ischial region injuries and poor quality (excessively rough and pot-holed) concrete floors (χ2=8.86, p=0.012). Injuries on the teats and udder were also found to be significantly associated with bare concrete-floored cubicles (χ2 =12.57, p=0.014) as well as with the quality of bedding (χ2=5.15, p=0.023).

This study concludes that poor cattle housing designs and the actual finishing quality within the construction caused various body injuries in these zero-grazed dairy cattle in the smallholder dairy units of the peri-urban areas of Nairobi. The effects also resulted in poor cattle welfare.

Keywords: cubicle bedding, floor types, neck injuries, skin hyperkeratosis


Dairy cattle housing should provide the animal with protection from harsh extremes in the environment (Hristov et al 2008). Good housing systems are those that are well designed for ease of management and maintenance at all times (DEFRA 2003; Webster 2005; Hristov et al 2008). It is proposed that all confinement facilities for animals should be constructed and operated to meet the legal requirements for protection of the animal as well as maintain high quality animal products (Leaver 1999). Good animal housing systems are those that enhance provision of all the five freedoms that an animal should have to satisfy its welfare (FAWC 1993; DEFRA 2003). If these basic needs cannot be met in the animal house, then health, welfare and production of the animal will be compromised. Skin lesions, other body injuries and swellings reflect the impact of the surrounding environment on the animal’s body (Wechsler et al 2000). This affects the well-being of the animal by causing pain and discomfort.

The smallholder production systems in Kenya consist of unique subunits without standardized housing designs that pose a risk to the well-being of cattle (Nguhiu-Mwangi et al 2008). The aim of this study was to determine the prevalence of various body injuries in dairy cattle and to establish how these substandard housing designs serve as risk factors to the injuries in the smallholder production units of the peri-urban areas of Nairobi, Kenya.  A study on body injuries in relation to the housing has not previously been carried out in Kenyan smallholder production systems.

Materials and Methods

Geographical study area

This was a cross-sectional study carried out in peri-urban areas of Nairobi, Kenya between July and October 2009. These peri-urban areas included parts of Kiambu, Kikuyu and Kajiado districts. Nairobi is the capital city of Kenya and occupies an area of approximately 696 square kilometers. It lies between 01° 17´S latitude and 36° 48´E longitude. Nairobi has an estimated population density of over 3017 persons per square kilometer. It has a high number of smallholder dairy production units owing to availability of a ready market for milk in the city. The peri-urban areas included in the study were located North, South and West of the City.  The study area was divided into 4 zones, which were designated as North, South, West and Central. Nairobi suburbs were designated as the Central zone. Each zone was further subdivided into 4 subzones.

Study design and selection of the smallholder units

This was a cross-sectional study in which each smallholder (zero-grazing) unit was visited once during the whole period of data collection. A total of 80 smallholder dairy units were included in the study. In this study, a smallholder dairy unit was defined as one with a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 16 adult dairy cows.  From each zone, 20 smallholder units (5 from each of the 4 subzones) were purposively selected through the help of local Veterinarians and Animal Health Assistants with whom the smallholder farmers were more acquainted. The purposive selection method was chosen due to logistical reasons based on farmers’ willingness to co-operate and allow their dairy units to be used in the study.

Animal selection in each smallholder unit

The animals included for examination were adult dairy cows, whether in milk or dry. In any smallholder unit that had 5 or less cows, all were selected for examination. In those smallholder units that had more than 5 cows, only 5 were selected for examination. The five were selected using a simple systematic sampling method. In each of such smallholder units, cows that met the selection criteria were isolated from the rest and serially numbered  as 1, 2, 3, to s, where s was the last serial number depending on the total number of cows isolated in that unit. To avoid biased sampling, the serial numbering of the isolated cows was done by a farm worker. Then from the serially numbered cows, every second cow in the series was systematically selected by the investigator, starting with either serial number 1 or 2.  For example in the series s1, s2, s3, s4, s5, s6, s7, s8, s9,  and s10, if the first cow selected was s1 the next one selected serially would be s3, s5, s7 and s9 respectively, thus all odd serial numbers. But if the first cow selected was s2, then the next ones selected serially would be s4, s6, s8 and s10 respectively, thus all even serial numbers. If the first cow selected in one smallholder unit was serial number s1, then in the next smallholder unit, the first cow selected would be serial number s2. This selection of the first cow was alternated between odd and even numbers from one smallholder unit to the other until investigation in all the 80 units was completed.  Therefore, the cows selected in any individual smallholder unit were either all with odd or all with even serial numbers. In all the 80 smallholder units, a total of 306 dairy cows were selected for examination.

Examination of the animals

In the smallholder units all the cows whether milking or dry were assessed. In each smallholder unit, all the selected cows were closely examined for any signs of external body injuries. Injuries were recorded according the body regions on which they occurred. These body regions were mainly those that were prone to injury from housing structures and they included the neck, brisket, carpal joint, rib-cage, tuber coxae, ischial, hock joint, teats and udder. However, the whole body was generally scrutinized for signs of injuries. The main signs that were considered as indicators of body injuries included external presence of active wounds, ulcerations, swellings, scars, localized hair loss and skin hyperkeratosis/cornifications.

Evaluation of housing design and construction

 Some of the factors of housing design and the quality of construction finishings were evaluated only by visual observation and the rest by taking actual measurement of the dimensions. Those factors that were evaluated by visual observation include types and state of roofing, walls, and floor (mainly at the walk alleys and cubicles), as well as types and adequacy of feeding bunks/troughs, presence or absence of neck rails over the feeding bunks and presence or absence of cubicles.  Those housing factors that were evaluated by measuring actual dimensions included height of neck rails from the upper edge of the feeding bunks, width of the walk alleys from the rear edge of the cubicles to the near edge of the feeding bunk/trough, as well as width and length of the cubicles. The stocking density was evaluated by calculating cows to cubicle ratios.

Collected data were entered and stored in Microsoft excel 2003. The data were cleaned and analyzed using SAS (Statistical Analytical System) © 2002 – 2003 (SAS Institute Inc., Cary, NC, USA) software. Descriptive statistics for the various body injuries were generated. Chi-square statistics were used to determine any associations between occurrence of specific body injuries and incriminated risk factors at p < 0.05 significance level.  


A total of 306 dairy cows were examined in the 80 smallholder units evaluated in this study. The average number per smallholder unit was 5 adult cows and the median number was 4. The age of the cows ranged between 3-14 years, with an average of 7 years and median age of 6.5 years. The cows were of various breeds: 55.9% (171) were Friesian with average weight of 433 kg, 21.6% (66) were Ayrshire with average weight of 419 kg, 4.9% (15) were Guernsey with average weight of 299 kg, 1.3% (4) was Jersey with average weight of 388 kg, and 16.3% (50) were not pure but cross-breeds between any two of the pure breeds. These cross breeds had average weight of 340 kg.

The highest prevalence of injuries was around the hock joint [(260/306) 85%], carpal joint [(230/306) 75.16%],   rib-cage [(228/306) 74.51%] and tuber coxae [(204/306) 66.70%] areas. In these regions, the signs of injuries manifested either as active wounds, scars, swellings or localized hair loss. Occasionally the hock joint area lesions were cornified. Other body regions that had relatively moderate frequencies of injuries included the dorsal surface of the neck [(186/306) 60.78%], brisket [(134/306) 43.79%], and ischial [(124/306) 40.52%] surfaces. Injuries in the neck area manifested as hyperkeratosis lesions with few of them having hair loss patches, active wounds or scars. Ischial area injuries had similar manifestations to the hock and carpal area lesions. The lowest prevalence of injuries occurred on the teat and udder area [(89/306) 29.1%], which mainly manifested as pox-like swellings.  The details of the various body injuries, their manifestations and photo presentations as encountered in this study are summarized in Tables 1, 2 and Photos 1a-1h respectively. 

Table 1. Distribution of injuries on various body regions as was found among the 306  cows examined in the 80 smallholder units evaluated for causes of body injuries in dairy cattle in the peri-urban areas of Nairobi, Kenya  (July–October 2009).


Number of farms with body injuries

Percentage of Farms  with body injuries

Number of cattle with body injuries

Percentage of cattle with body injuries

Hock joint





Carpal joint





Rib cage area





Tuber coxae















Ischial area





Teats / udder





Table 2. Percentages of various signs of injuries in different regions of the body among the 306 cows examined in the 80 smallholder units evaluated for causes of body injuries in dairy cattle in the peri-urban areas of  Nairobi, Kenya (July–October 2009).

 Body region


Hair loss



Pox-like lesions

Carpal area






Hock joint












Tuber coxae






Ischial area


















Teats /Udder






Photos 1a-1h. Different signs of  body injuries found in some of the 306 cows examined in the 80 smallholder units evaluated for causes of body injuries in
dairy cattle in the peri-urban areas of Nairobi, Kenya (July-October 2009). 1a. Neck injury on the dorsal aspect, 1b. Brisket injury, 1c. Hock injury,
1d.Tuber coxae injury. 1e. Thigh injury, 1f. Hock injury that is cornified,
1g. Rib-cage injury, 1h. Laceration below the hock area.

In the animal housing design, cow resting cubicles were present in 83.8% of the 80 smallholder units evaluated. Among these, a majority 74.6% had small cubicle sizes measuring between ≤1.80m long by ≤0.95m wide, 23.9% had cubicle sizes measuring between 1.95m to 2.20m long and 1.00m to 1.20m wide, and only 1.5% had large cubicles measuring ≥2.20m long by 1.20m wide. The various housing factors causing injuries to different body regions are represented in Photos 2a to 2e.

Photos 2a-2e. Different factors of housing design that predisposed cows to injuries of various body regions in some of the 80 smallholder units evaluated for
causes of body injuries in dairy cattle in the peri-urban areas of Nairobi, Kenya (July-October 2009): 2a. Cubicle housing with protruding traumatic parts,
2b. Bare concrete floor, 2c. Pot-holed concrete floor on the walk alley, 2d. A cow with the neck and brisket (single-headed arrow) between a low neck
rail and the upper edge of feeding bunk (double-headed arrow), 2e. Collapsed roof (straight arrow) with a cow underneath (curved arrow).

The divisions between some of these cubicles were made of poorly finished construction materials with protruding sharp edges and sometimes nail. Of the smallholder units that had cubicles, the animal to cubicle ratio was 1:1 in 59.7%, 2:1 in 20.9% and 3:1 or more in 19.4% of the units. In 53.8% of the 80 smallholder units, there was no bedding in the cubicles and other cow resting areas. Among these without bedding, 53.5% were bare earth because they were not concreted and 46.5% were left as bare concrete.  Those smallholder units that had bedding in the cubicles or other cow resting areas, the bedding material consisted of sawdust/wood shavings (62.2%), rubber mats (21.57%), wheat straw (16.2%) or closely knitted wooden slabs (0.03%), From the 80 smallholder units, 71.3% of them had walk-alley floors concreted and 28.8% were earthen (without concrete). Of those with concreted floors, 41.3% of them had grossly worn-out or pot-holed concrete, while 26.3% were smooth and slippery and only 32.5% had good textured non-slippery concrete. The width of the walk alleys was quite narrow at ≤ 0.85m in 83.8% of the smallholder units and in 16.25% it was >1.20m.

Feeding bunks in 95% of the smallholder units were permanently in-built and were either made of concrete, wood or iron sheets, but in 5% of the units, open plastic containers or metallic feed troughs were used.  The feeding bunks had high and sharply traumatic upper edges in 42% of the smallholder units.  The space per cow at the feeding bunk was 0.5m in 67.5% of the smallholder units when all of them were feeding simultaneously, but less than 0.20m in 32% of the units. Neck rails over the feeding bunks were present in 60% of the units, but absent in 40% of the units. The neck rail heights from the upper edge of the feeding bunk were either ≤ 0.5m or >0.5m.

Cattle housing units were completely roofed over the cubicles, walk alley and feeding bunk areas in 35% of the 80 smallholder units evaluated, but partially roofed only over the cubicles and the feeding bunks in the remaining 65% of the units. The roofs were made of iron sheets in 87% of the units, wood in 10% and concrete in 3% of the units. In the smallholder units that had iron sheet roofing, 60% of them had partially collapsed roofs. The walls in the cattle housing units were made of either wood (43.75%), concrete (32.50%), or iron sheets (23.75%). In 75% of these units, there were protruding traumatic nails and sharp edges on the walls.

Injuries in specific body regions were found to be associated also with specific housing design and construction quality factors as indicated in Table 3.

Table 3. Risk factors associated with the occurrence of body injuries in the 306 cows examined in the 80 smallholder units evaluated for causes of body injuries in the peri-urban areas of Nairobi, Kenya (July–October 2009).

Injured body region

Risk factor

Chi-square ( χ2)

P value


Presence of neck rail





Height of neck rail





Presence of neck rail





Height of neck rail




Teat / udder

Bare concrete floor





Quality of bedding





Narrow walk alley





Concrete floor




Presence of neck rails over the feed bunk had significant association with injuries on the dorsal surface of the neck (χ2=20.25, p<0.0001) and the brisket surface (χ2= 8.14, p=0.0043), but the heights of the neck rails were found to influence presence or absence of injuries on the dorsal surface of the neck (χ2=22.93, p<0.0001) and on the brisket surface (χ2=7.37, p=0.025). Hock injuries were found to be significantly influenced by narrow walk alleys (χ2=10.68, p<0.001). Injuries at the ischial area were significantly associated with poor quality (excessively rough and pot-holed) concrete floors (χ2=8.86, p=0.012). Teat and udder injuries were found to have a significant association with bare concrete-floored cubicles (χ2 =12.57, p=0.014) and also with the quality of cubicle bedding (χ2=5.15, p=0.023).


The results of this study indicated that hock joint, carpal joint, rib cage and tuber coxae regions had the highest prevalence of injuries among dairy cows examined. Kneeling on the carpus, which is the normal behavior of cattle when rising from lying position may have caused the high prevalence of carpal area injuries, particularly from the bare cubicles (without bedding), rough and pot-holed concrete floors. Such cubicles and floors may also have contributed to high incidence of hock area injuries during the lying down episodes, but the main risk factor for hock injuries in this study was found to be the narrow walk alleys. Narrow walk alleys together with high stocking densities caused the cows to be squeezed particularly at the feeding bunk and this probably led to bruising of the hock by the bounding cubicle poles and the sides of the feeding bunk. These observations were similar to the findings of other studies (Rutherford et al 2009). High incidence of hock injuries also supports previous reports (Weary and Taszkun 2000; Kiellad et al 2009). Other  previously implicated  risk factors for hock injuries include limited feeding space per cow, reduced passageway cleanliness, type of bedding, parity level of the cow, lying time and herd size (Weary and Taszkun 2000). Repeated hock and carpal bruising is the reason for the nature of traumatic signs appearing in these areas, such as localized hair loss, scars, cornifications and sometimes active wounds.

Although injuries in the rib-cage and tuber coxae regions had no significantly associated risk factors in this study, yet their bony protuberances were easily injured by the protruding sharp edges and nails in the narrow cubicles, thus giving these areas of the body high prevalence of injuries. The size of the cow with respect to width and body weight rather than the breed, determines how the cow would fit into the cubicle. This means that heavier-wider cows would squeeze into the cubicle and subsequently sustain rib cage and tuber coxae injuries. They would also squeeze at the feeding bunk and possibly risk having more brisket and neck injuries. However, the variations in cubicle sizes between these smallholder units, makes it difficult to do an association between breeds/cow sizes and cubicle sizes for lack of standardization, since the  cubicle sizes vary from unit to unit to the extent that variations can also be found within the same smallholder unit.

Too high and sharp upper edges of the feeding bunk coupled with low neck rails were the main predisposing factors of injuries of the brisket and the dorsal surface of the neck. As the cow attempted to fit under the low neck rail, the brisket was constantly bruised by the edge of the feeding bunk, but the dorsal surface of the neck was frequently bruised by the low neck rail, hence  the observed hair loss and hyperkeratosis as signs of injury in these body areas. Similar findings have been reported previously (Kirkegaard et al 2003).

 Occurrences of injuries on the ischial and udder regions were predisposed by lack of cubicle bedding. This meant that the cows always lay on bare concreted floors, which in most cases were rough and pot-holed, hence the occurrence of these injuries. These observations are similar to those previously reported (Weary et al 2006). The study also showed that the quality of bedding played a role in predisposing the cows to teat and udder injuries. Provision of bedding in the cubicles and other cattle resting areas enhances cow-comfort and promotes its welfare (FAWC 1993; DEFRA 2003). Moreover, presence of comfortable bedding influences cow resting behavior positively by encouraging them to lie frequently on it and hence reduce the long hours of standing, which subsequently minimizes the risk of lameness (Nguhiu et al 2008), thus enhancing welfare of the cows. One of the housing factors that has not been reported previously yet it is a possible high risk factor for injury and poor welfare of cattle, is the partially collapsed iron sheet roofing.

From the current study, it can be concluded that the evaluated smallholder dairy units had multiplicity of substandard cattle housing designs in addition to being poorly finished. They also had many protruding sharp edges on cubicle poles and timber as well as on the feeding bunks, neck rails and concrete floors. Furthermore, the cubicles and other cow resting areas were left bare without bedding. All these housing factors predisposed the cows to various body injuries and contributed immensely to poor animal welfare. Moreover, there was overstocking in some of the smallholder units, which triggered competition at the feeding bunks, at the walk alleys and for the cubicles, hence exacerbating the occurrence of body injuries. The Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nairobi has recently incorporated into the undergraduate curriculum, issues of animal welfare, which includes housing factors with the hope of disseminating knowledge to the Kenyan farmers in general for improvement of animal well being.


This study was partially supported by a grant from Board of Post-graduate Studies, University of Nairobi and printing of the questionnaire templates was facilitated by Dan Ombok of International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI). The authors are also grateful to all the farmers who participated in this study.


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Received 12 October 2010; Accepted 25 January 2011; Published 6 March 2011

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