Diagnosing lumps and bumps

Lumps on the head and jaw area of cattle are common. There are several potential causes, and treatment can vary depending on the cause.

Lumpy jaw is a bacterial infection of the jaw bone of cattle. It can affect either the lower or upper jaw but is most commonly seen on the lower jaw in the area of the cheek teeth.

The bacteria responsible for the infection inhabits the mouth of cattle and is introduced into the soft tissue by penetrating wounds in the mouth caused by wire, coarse forage or sticks.

The infection becomes established within the jawbone of the animal and begins to cause a thickening of the bone and significant swelling.

These lumps are hard and immovable and are attached directly to the jawbone.

Identifying that the lump is bony and attached to the bone of the jaw is the key to diagnosing lumpy jaw.

In the later stages, the lumps become even more swollen and painful to the touch. They will eventually break open and discharge small amounts of pus.

The bony changes and swelling can affect the alignment of teeth or cause teeth to be lost as the disease progresses, which can make chewing difficult.

If left long enough, the animal will begin to lose condition and become emaciated.

No treatments are available to effectively cure lumpy jaw, which means infected animals need to be sent for slaughter before they lose significant body condition.

A veterinarian may use intravenous sodium iodide or other injectable antibiotic therapies to attempt to slow the progression of the disease, but these therapies will not cure it.

Affected animals should be isolated to prevent contamination of feeding areas.

Wooden tongue is caused by a different species of bacteria, which also invades the soft tissue of the mouth through abrasions caused by rough feed and abrasive pasture plant species.

Wooden tongue often appears in beef cows on pasture. These animals are often first noticed because they are losing weight.

A closer examination will reveal they have excessive salivation and may make chewing motions without having feed present.

The tongue will be swollen and large and there may be swelling on the underside of the jaw region.

The cow will often appear in pain if its tongue is manipulated, and there may be nodules or ulcers on the sides of the tongue.

Several treatments can be recommended by a veterinarian, but injections of sodium-iodide or an antibiotic such as penicillin or oxytetracycline are the most common.

Unlike lumpy jaw, these animals will show significant signs of improvement in 24 to 48 hours after treatment.

Abscesses are another common cause of swellings around the head and jaw area. They are caused by a variety of bacteria, including the same bacteria that can cause wooden tongue.

The bacteria usually enter the soft tissue of the mouth through similar abrasions that are caused by rough feed or awns.

In this case, the swellings are softer and more moveable, although a thicker capsule will eventually develop around them.The swellings are only in the soft tissue and aren’t attached to the bony jaw or skull.

Some cattle may have multiple abscesses in a variety of sites around their head and neck.

Placing a sterile hypodermic needle in these lumps can often demonstrate pus in the centre of the abscess.

A veterinarian might prescribe antibiotics such as penicillin or oxytetracyline, depending on the location and number of abscesses.

However, in many cases the ab-scesses will have to be lanced, drained and flushed because it is difficult for antibiotics to penetrate the thick capsules around them.

Foxtail awns must be physically removed for the animal to completely recover. They can cause dramatic ulcers on the tongue and in the mouth of cattle and may also cause abscesses around the head region.

Other potential causes of lumps in the head area of cattle include hematomas caused by trauma. These are usually best left alone to heal on their own, although some may become abscesses and need to be drained eventually.

Swollen lymph nodes can be caused by a variety of problems and may appear as swellings in the neck and jaw area. These animals should be examined by a veterinarian to diagnose the cause of the swelling.

John Campbell is head of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine.