Mastitis is inflammation and infection of the udder. This is primarily a problem in dairy cows but can also occur in beef cows. Depending upon the infectious organism involved, a bad case of mastitis may kill the cow. It’s not a condition to ignore.
Mastitis can develop if a quarter becomes contaminated — if bacteria enter the teat canal — as when cows calve in dirty areas, or lie in mud and manure after calving. Mastitis may also occur if the udder is bumped and bruised; damaged tissue creates ideal conditions for an infection to get started.
A large udder or a big quarter that hasn’t been nursed is easily bruised. If a beef cow gives a lot of milk, her young calf may not be able to drink it all. If he is only nursing two or three quarters, the ones that get huge are vulnerable to mastitis. If a teat is dirty from the cow lying in manure, the calf may refuse to nurse that quarter and it gets large — and is at risk for bruising.
When calves are weaned the cows may try to get back to their calves; a big udder may become bruised if the cow does a lot of traveling or running up and down the fenceline trying to get back to her calf or go find him. Weaning is a common time for mastitis; the full udder can be easily injured.
If infection stays localized in the affected quarter, the mammary tissue may be destroyed but the infection is not life-threatening. That quarter may be permanently damaged, however, unless treated quickly, and the cow may lose ability to produce milk from it. That quarter will be small and dry next time she calves, or may produce a little fluid right after she calves, and then dry up.
If the infection gets in the bloodstream the cow becomes sick. She’ll go off feed and have a fever. Unless treatment is swift and diligent, you may not only lose the quarter or part of the udder, sloughing away; you may also lose the cow. About 20 years ago our neighbor lost one of his cows that developed a severe systemic infection from a case of mastitis.
One year we had a cow suffer udder bruising while fighting other cows. With diligent antibiotic treatment — intramuscular injections for 10 days, and mastitis preparations squirted into the affected quarter — we saved her, but the infection destroyed the udder. The affected side of the udder sloughed away and our vet removed the remaining hanging tissue so it could heal. Without prompt and diligent attention in the early stages of this infection, she would have died.
The strangest case of mastitis we had was in a cow on summer range. We discovered her swollen quarter and brought her and her calf home so we could treat her. But in spite of daily treatments, the infected rear quarter remained large and swollen. A few weeks later the infection broke out through the side and back of the quarter and drained. We kept flushing it out with an antibiotic solution, and one day during the flushing process, out came a six-inch long piece of stiff grass!
We surmised that her calf must have nursed with some grass still in its mouth, and a grass stem got jammed directly into the teat canal, providing the contamination and irritation to start the infection. Even with antibiotic treatments it would not heal because the grass was still in there, providing constant irritation. Once the grass came out, we were able to clear up the infection.
Mastitis should be treated as soon as it occurs. Mammary infusions for dairy cows work for beef cows also, according to our veterinarian. These are specially formulated medications to be inserted into the teat opening and squirted into the quarter. Some should be given once a day, some twice daily. The main thing is to keep the quarter milked out. It’s ok if the calf will nurse it, but often the cow won’t let him nurse that quarter because it’s sore. Sometimes there is no milk — just watery fluid.
Milk out as much as you can daily — the lumpy milk, pus, or abnormal fluid — and then inject the medication. Keep it milked out until the quarter is producing normal milk again. If the calf will nurse it, this saves you the trouble of milking it out.
Our vet says that if the cow is sick, off feed or feverish, you should also use a good systemic antibiotic, and keep using it until she is fully recovered. According to Dr. Jeff Hoffman (veterinarian at Salmon, Idaho) one advantage you have in treating a beef cow for mastitis, as opposed to a dairy cow, is that you can use systemic antibiotics to advantage because there is no worry about residues in the milk for human consumption. Dairymen have to be very careful on this issue, but the beef cow is not providing milk for anyone but her calf, and an antibiotic residue is not going to hurt him.
You therefore have more choices for various antibiotics that can be used, and less worry about withdrawal times. The only residue issues would be for slaughter rather than for milk production, and you probably are not going to sell that cow right away; you want her to finish raising her calf. The only time you might need to consider a residue risk is if you are treating a cull cow for mastitis after weaning her calf. In that instance you must diligently observe the label directions for withdrawal and make sure that she’s not sold before that time elapses.
Mastitis can be very serious; have your veterinarian advise you on treatment and the proper antibiotic to use. Diligent treatment can make the difference in whether or not you lose that quarter, or even the cow.
Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband Lynn near Salmon, Idaho. Contact her at 208-756-2841