Cow culling: Pay attention to all lumps |

Cow culling: Pay attention to all lumps

Determine whether your animal has a bony or a soft lump and then decide on treatment or possible culling. Photo by Heather Smith Thomas

Wooden Tongue

Wooden tongue is sometimes mistaken for lump jaw.

This is an infection in the tongue (probably from injury allowing bacteria to enter) caused by the same bacteria that cause soft-tissue abscesses. Some animals with wooden tongue develop multiple abscesses around the head and jaw. “In some instances a case of wooden tongue might be mistaken for lumpy jaw, because of the abscesses and difficulty eating,” says Lias. But if an animal with wooden tongue has abscesses they are just in the soft tissue. The animal has a very firm tongue and it’s difficult to move the tongue.

Wooden tongue affects the animal’s ability to eat. “Often you see the tip of the tongue protruding from the mouth because it is so swollen; the cow can’t pull it back in. Sometimes there will be drooling of saliva because the cow can’t keep her mouth closed. If you examine the cow it’s easy to tell that the tongue is very large and firm,” he says.

Since a cow eats by pulling feed into her mouth with the tongue, she can’t eat very well with this condition and loses weight. “She looks gaunt and you can tell she’s not eating,” says Lias.

“Because the infection is in the soft tissue of the tongue (and not in bone), it can be treated with antibiotics. The organism is sensitive to penicillin or tetracycline so these animals can be successfully treated, recover and do well. Something like LA-200 or LA-300 works well because you get longer coverage and don’t have to treat every day.”

There are two kinds of “lump jaw” in cattle. Soft-tissue abscesses due to wounds in the mouth and embedded foreign bodies like sharp grass seeds are easy to treat by lancing, draining and flushing, but a bone infection takes diligent efforts to eradicate and treatment may not be successful.


Dr. Chris Clark, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, Saskatchewan, says many cattle develop swellings and abscesses in soft tissue on the jaw, and these are the ones we blame on foxtail, cheat grass or some other sharp material in the feed that penetrates or lodges in the lining of the mouth and allows bacteria to enter and create an infection.

“If you know it’s an abscess, it can be opened to drain and flush out. These will usually heal with just one flushing treatment. With true lumpy jaw, a specific bacterium called Actinomyces bovis gets in alongside a tooth and settles in the bone at the bottom of the tooth. As these bacteria multiply, this sets up an inflammatory reaction in the bone. The affected bone is being resorbed internally, but because of the inflammation there is swelling,” he explains.

“The abscess will need to drain for several days, so you don’t want it sealing over and getting big again. You need to be fairly aggressive in how much you open it up, or it will close up and you’ll have to do it again. After draining out the pus that comes readily, flush out the rest with a large syringe. I use a dilute solution of betadine — mixing it with warm water and squirting it into the opening. This will flush as much of the bacteria as possible out of there, and allow it to heal.” Dr. Bill Lias, Interstate Vet Clinic in Brandon, S.D.

“The bone is a dynamic, living material and tries to repair itself. New layers of bone are building up on the outside, even as the inside is being destroyed. The animal ends up with an extremely hard bony swelling on the jawbone, in contrast to a soft tissue abscess that is just in the skin and mouth tissues,” says Clark.

Dr. Bill Lias, Interstate Vet Clinic, Brandon, South Dakota, says bone infections usually involve the lower jaw but occasionally occur on the upper jaw. The technical term for this bacterial infection is Actinomycosis. Since these bacteria live in the soil and are present in the environment, there has to be some kind of penetrating wound in the mouth to cause infection.

This could be caused by anything sharp, such as wire or other foreign material in the feed, chewing on sticks or eating abrasive feed. When there are multiple cases on one operation, it’s usually due to coarse feed, or sharp material in the feed. It’s usually a deeper or more penetrating wound than what typically causes a soft tissue abscess. Signs of bony lump jaw show up after the infection gets going in the bone.

Infection and inflammation result in a bony enlargement, usually in the area of the central molars. The lump may develop within a few weeks, or enlarge slowly over several months. Unless treated, the bony infection continues, and the lump keeps getting bigger. It may eventually break through the skin and discharge sticky fluid through one or more openings.

Lias say the ongoing infection may eventually damage the teeth in that area of the jaw. Affected teeth may become loose and give the animal trouble chewing. Bacteria may enter the bone through the dental sockets when young animals are shedding their baby teeth, when the permanent molars are starting to come in.

The bone infection usually gets started when a foreign body penetrates down to the bone alongside the teeth, according to Clark. “We usually don’t know whether it’s a piece of hay or something else that penetrates the area and takes bacteria with it. Once the bacteria get down there they set up infection at the bottom of the tooth socket.”

Young adults—especially 2 and 3 year olds—seem to have a higher incidence of bony lump jaw, perhaps because this is when they are shedding teeth. “This may make them more vulnerable, when the teeth are loosening and coming through the gums. There might be an opening where a piece of feed or something else could get jammed into the tooth socket,” Clark says.

“This may be why the condition is seen most often in young cattle, such as 2 and 3 year olds,” says Lias. “When baby teeth are being shed, the sockets may be exposed to injury (as from sharp material in the feed) before the new teeth are fully erupted to fill those sockets. This is a site where stickers or other material may poke into them and create a route of entrance for bacteria.”

Treatment is difficult. “There really haven’t been any improvements or new treatments for bony lump jaw. The traditional use of sodium iodide solution, given IV is still considered one of the better treatments,” says Lias.

“Success of treatment hinges on how early this condition is detected. If you catch it early and treat it aggressively there is more chance for success. When there’s already a big bony lump it’s tough to halt the infection—in the more advanced cases.”

Producers often wonder whether to treat the cow or just sell her. If she’s pregnant they generally want to give her time to have that calf and raise it. “Every situation is different. If it’s a young cow and she’s in pretty good shape when you noticing the early signs, she’d be a good candidate to treat. If she’s older and has a large swelling and bony lump on the jaw, you might not want to bother with treatment but keep her around to raise her current calf if she hasn’t lost too much weight,” Lias says.

“The affected bone is being absorbed and new bone is being laid down, but the new bone is not properly organized,” explains Clark. “There is invariably a weakening of the bone. And as the bone changes, the teeth often become misaligned,” he says. This makes it harder for the cow to chew, and she starts to lose weight. You often see these animals in relatively poor condition.

“These cows can get along with a bony lump for a while, but as the bone becomes more damaged the teeth may become loose,” says Lias. “Once the cow starts losing weight she won’t milk very well, and won’t raise a very good calf. If the cow isn’t doing well, the calf isn’t going to do well.”

You might be able to halt the infection and inflammatory process with treatment, but the bone is weakened. “Depending on how far the disease has advanced, if the animal were to bang its jaw on something, it may suffer a fracture,” says Clark.

“My opinion is that once you find an animal with bony lump jaw, that animal should be culled at the next culling cycle,” he says. If it’s a bull, sell him after the current breeding season. If it’s a cow, you might let her have another calf if she’s heavily pregnant, but then sell her at the next good opportunity.

“If the disease is still in early stages and she hasn’t lost weight, and her teeth are still aligned properly, we might try treating her and monitoring her. But with the vast majority of commercial animals, lumpy jaw would raise them to the top of the culling list for that year,” Clark says.

“If the disease has been going on awhile and the mouth is compromised—the animal is not eating well and is losing weight—from a welfare standpoint that animal should be culled immediately, even if you have to just butcher her,” says Clark.


Abscesses in the soft tissue are more common, and generally caused by other bacteria including Actinobacillus, which is sometimes associated with wooden tongue. “Treatment is more rewarding in these infections. If the animal has a soft tissue abscess you can lance and drain it and the infection will clear up,” says Lias.

Systemic antibiotics are generally not needed because it’s a local infection, but this particular bacterium is responsive to penicillin or tetracycline. “The main thing is to open the abscess and establish drainage. There may be some scarring–accumulation of granulation tissue and a residual small bump–but most cases clear up nicely,” he says. Sometimes the abscess will break and drain on its own, but it will heal faster if you can lance and flush it out.

There’s not a lot you can do to prevent these lumps (except avoid weedy hay that contains sharp material like cheat grass seeds or foxtail awns). “Many types of feed can cause abrasions and damage to the gums or cheek tissues, or the teeth sockets. Any kind of coarse feed could cause injury. In this part of the country we feed a lot of cornstalks and beanstalks, and there may be a lot of fibrous, tough material that could puncture the inner parts of the mouth,” he explains.

Soft tissue abscesses may occur at any age. “We see some in baby calves as well as older animals, if they are chewing on coarse feed, whereas bony lumps don’t appear until later in life—in 2-year-olds or older. One way to tell the difference is whether the lump is moveable in the soft tissue or firmly attached to the bone. Once you’ve felt the difference between the two types of lumps, they are easy to differentiate. The bony lump is very hard and immobile—enlargement of the bone itself—whereas the soft tissue abscess can be moved around under the skin,” Lias says.

“Often when you palpate those you can tell they have a softer center and you know there’s pus in there. This center can be lanced and drained. Restrain the animal in a headgate and tie the head off to the side so it can’t move around while you are trying to lance the abscess. If it is low on the jaw or in the throatlatch area, be very careful to not slice into vital structures like the jugular vein or carotid artery. If you haven’t done this before and are not comfortable with the procedure, have your veterinarian do it, to be safe.” The incision should be made at the lower edge of the soft area, for best drainage, making a vertical slit (less likely to cut blood vessels than with a horizontal incision).

Be sure to make a long enough slit that it will stay open for drainage. “The abscess will need to drain for several days, so you don’t want it sealing over and getting big again. You need to be fairly aggressive in how much you open it up, or it will close up and you’ll have to do it again,” he says. This might be one reason to have your veterinarian do it if you aren’t experienced. Some people might be too cautious and not open it enough for adequate drainage so it will stay open.

Some of these abscesses can become quite large, with a lot of pressure and a great deal of pus that squirts out when you lance them. “After draining out the pus that comes readily, flush out the rest with a large syringe. I use a dilute solution of betadine—mixing it with warm water and squirting it into the opening. This will flush as much of the bacteria as possible out of there, and allow it to heal,” says Lias.

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