There are two kinds of lump jaw in cattle. Soft tissue abscesses are relatively easy to treat and clear up, whereas lumpy jaw is a deeper infection, within the bone and much more difficult to treat. Dr. Chris Clark of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon says many cattle develop swellings or abscesses in soft tissue along the jaw, and these are the ones we typically blame on foxtail, cheat grass or some other sharp material in feed that penetrates or lodges in the lining of the mouth and allows bacteria to enter and create an infection.
These can be opened to drain and flush, and usually heal with just one flushing treatment. With true lumpy jaw, by contrast, a bacterium called Actinomyces bovis gets in alongside the 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 also swelling, he explains.
The bone is a dynamic, living material and tries to repair itself. New layers of bone build 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 and quite moveable, says Clark. If you press the bony lump with your hand, it does not move.
John Campbell, professor and head of the Department of Large Animal Clinical Science, Western College of Veterinary Medicine, says lumpy jaw often starts as a soft-tissue infection that gets into the bone via a penetrating wound through the mouth from rough hay or feed, sticks or pieces of wire baled up in hay or a wound from the outside.
This particular organism, Actinomyces bovis, eventually gets into the bone tissue, usually in the lower jaw but sometimes the upper one. Often there is ulceration or fistulous tracts that drain pus. The pus contains bacteria, so if another animal eats something rough that scratches the mouth, and feed is contaminated with bacteria from the pus, that animal could get the infection also, he says. Thus this disease is mildly contagious in that another animal may pick up bacteria from an infected animal.
These bacteria survive in the environment fairly well, so if a cow is spreading pus around on the hay feeder or feed ground, another animal may become exposed, says Campbell. The bone infection usually gets started when a foreign body penetrates down to the bone alongside the teeth and set up infection at the bottom of the tooth socket.
Young adults especially two-and three-year olds seem to have a higher incidence of bony lump jaw, perhaps because this is the age they are shedding teeth. This may make them more vulnerable, when 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, explains Clark.
There s no way to completely prevent this disease or protect cattle. The bacteria are present in the environment in soil and feed. They only cause a problem, however, if they manage to find their way down the side of a tooth, he says.
Lumpy jaw can be diagnosed with a culture, but it s fairly easy to diagnose just by its characteristics a hard lump, firmly attached to the bone. It may also ooze a clear serum containing crystalline material from a fistulous tract, or the fluid may contain pus.
If the infection gets into the teeth, the animal may lose teeth, says Campbell. As the disease progresses it can make it difficult for the animal to eat, unable to chew. This becomes a welfare issue; you can t let these animals go on too long. It eventually affects their ability to eat and if they are starting to lose body condition its time to cull them, he explains.
Permanent bone damage
The affected bone is being absorbed and new bone is being laid down, but the new bone is not properly organized, and weaker, says Clark. As the bone changes, teeth often become misaligned, he says. This makes it harder for the animal to chew, and it starts to lose weight. These animals are often in relatively poor condition.
Even if you could kill the bacteria with the best antibiotic in the world, the bone is still damaged. You may halt the infection and inflammatory process 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 true lumpy 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 raise her calf or have another calf if she s heavily pregnant, but then sell her at the next opportunity.
If the disease is still in early stages and she hasn t lost weight, and her teeth are still aligned properly, I talk to the owner and we might try treating her and monitoring her. But with most commercial animals, lumpy jaw should raise them to the top of the culling list for that year, he says. Eventually the bony lump will grow again and cause the teeth to become misaligned or fall out, or create risk for a broken jaw.
If the disease has been going on awhile and the mouth is compromised the animal is not eating well and losing weight from a welfare standpoint that animal should be culled immediately, even if you have to just butcher her, says Clark.
Treatment involves trying to halt the bacterial infection. There is no real cure, however, says Campbell. We can slow its growth but we can t make it go away. We don t have any treatment that will make it disappear.
If caught in the early stages it may be worth treating, however, just to slow the progress. We usually treat with sodium iodide intravenously. This should be repeated once or twice after a week or two, says Campbell.
Some producers worry about the dangers of abortion when using sodium iodide. The label says it s not approved for use in pregnant cows. This may be because the companies have not done the testing necessary to know whether it is safe. If they haven t done the research they can t put that on the label. Many veterinarians have used it in pregnant cows, however, with no problems. One textbook here at the college states that sodium iodide has been shown to be safe for use in pregnant cows with little risk for causing abortion, he says.
Some veterinarians recommend antibiotics as well. You might use tetracycline or penicillin. These drugs can also be helpful when treating a soft-tissue problem like wooden tongue, even though it is caused by a different type of bacteria, explains Campbell.
Sodium iodide, given intravenously, is an old treatment still used by many veterinarians, says Clark. We re not entirely sure how it works, but it seems to help break down the fibrous scar tissue the body is creating to try to wall off the infection. A number of different antibiotics have also been tried, including oxytetracycline. This is the one we commonly use because it penetrates into bone relatively well. In beef cattle we use the long-acting form which gives adequate levels for three days, which keeps the number of treatments down, he says.
But when treating lumpy jaw, I personally only treat the animal if I can catch it early, and generally only if there is significant genetic value in that particular animal that makes it worthwhile to try. I stress to the owner that the animal must be monitored. If the animal is comfortable and maintaining weight, and not suffering, it can probably stay in the herd a while, especially if it s a young cow, says Clark. If the condition starts to worsen, then it s time to cull that animal.
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. But if an animal with wooden tongue has abscesses they usually just contain pus and the animal has very hard tongue tissue. It s difficult to move the tongue.
Because a wooden tongue infection is in the soft tissue of the tongue (and not the bone), it can be treated with antibiotics. The tongue can then remodel and those animals recover and do well.
Sodium iodide given IV is also very effective in treating wooden tongue.