Ask the Vet

Untreated Infections Can Become Big Problems

Cattle can get puncture wounds in the lower jaw area easily, sometimes when grazing. This is an area where it's easy for an infection to start. (Progressive Farmer photo by Jim Patrico)


I have a cow that has developed a large swelling on her lower jaw. It does not seem to bother her. Is this something I need to have checked out?


The short answer here: yes. Many of these types of swellings are simple bacterial infections.

If a cow consumes a piece of wire or a sharp stick, and it breaks the skin, or it has a puncture wound on the lower jaw, it's easy for an infection to get started. Initially, this infection spreads between tissues and is called cellulitis. The affected area can be very hard, painful and warm to the touch.

This infection will usually "organize" itself into an abscess (pus pocket) that may rupture and drain. In some cases—especially with certain bacteria like Actinomyces bovis—the infection can spread to the mandible (jaw bone). This is called lumpy jaw or actinomycosis.

Cellulitis can often be treated with antibiotics. Abscesses are best treated by lancing, draining and flushing, and then giving antibiotics. Antibiotics don't penetrate the abscess well, so draining the pus pocket is by far the most important part of the treatment.

Once we are looking at actinomycosis, it's a much more difficult condition to treat. The treatment of choice is sodium iodide given in the vein slowly and repeated several times. Antibiotics are given at the same time. Treatment is not always successful, and caution must be used in pregnant cows.

This is a condition where your veterinarian will want to be sure of a diagnosis before treatment. The two of you will have to make a hard decision on whether it's cost effective to treat the animal at all.