Ask the Vet

Udder Issues Can't be Ignored

A heifer with a swollen udder may have edema, a very treatable condition. (Photo by Becky Mills)


We have a heifer with a swollen udder. The swelling extends up the body toward her belly button, is soft and feels like bread dough. We are very concerned, as she is close to calving. Is there anything we need to do?


This sounds like a condition called udder edema. It is much more common in dairy cows than beef cows but is most common in heifers and heavier milkers. An exact cause is not known, but there may be some impairment of her circulation in the pelvic area because of fetal pressure.

There is often a drop in protein levels in the blood immediately prior to calving, as antibodies are transferred into the colostrum. Proteins act like a sponge to keep fluid in the veins and capillaries, so low levels could cause the condition you describe. High energy rations and legumes have also been implicated in increasing the incidence of udder edema in dairy cattle.

This swelling can prevent the calf from being able to nurse and get adequate colostrum, which can lead to a multitude of problems. So keep a close watch, and give the calf a colostrum replacer if you are concerned it’s not getting what it needs from the dam.

I recommend having your veterinarian examine her to see if udder edema is the problem or if there is some other issue. Diuretics and steroids are usually effective in decreasing swelling in udder edema.