By Heather Smith Thomas — Lump jaw in cattle is a bacterial infection of the jawbone. Bacteria are often present in the mouth of cattle, so anything that punctures the mouth tissues may open the way for infection, which can lead to lump jaw. There are two kinds of lump, requiring different treatment. Most common are soft tissue infections which are easy to treat by lancing and draining. Another type of lump is caused by an infection in the bone, and it is difficult to treat. It usually results in having to cull or butcher the animal. Bony lump jaw tends to occur most often in young cattle two or three years of age. Knowing the signs and symptoms of lump jaw in cattle is an important part of cattle farming.
Both types of lump begin in the same manner. A break in the tissue allows bacteria to enter. A sharp seed or sharp object in the feed may poke the side of the mouth. Ulcers caused by BVD virus can open the way for bacteria, which can enter from feed or soil. Grazing cattle may pull plants up by the roots, eating dirt clinging to the roots. Cattle fed on the ground may pick up dirt or mud when eating the feed.
The most common form of lump jaw in cattle is an abscess in soft tissue along the lower jaw. The lump may be hard or soft, but can be moved around if you press it firmly with your hand; it is not attached to the bone. A certain bacterium, Actinomyces bovis, that lives in soil, can cause bony lump jaw. These bacteria enter a wound in the mouth the same way, but infect the bone if the break in the tissues penetrates deeply.
This infection may enter through the dental sockets where the teeth are set into the jaw. This is one reason it tends to occur in young cattle when their permanent teeth are coming in. Two-year-olds are prime candidates for this problem; this is the age they are shedding baby teeth and getting permanent molars.
The infection gets going in the upper or lower jaw, creating a painless bony enlargement, usually near the central molars. In rare cases it involves tissues of mouth and throat if they were punctured. Bony lump jaw in cattle occurs only sporadically but is a serious condition because of poor response to treatment. A general enlargement on the lower jawbone can be due to thickening of the lower edge of the bone, and may not be noticed until it is quite large and too extensive for treatment to be effective. More commonly, a protrusion on the side of the bone occurs and is more easily seen.
Some cases enlarge swiftly in a few weeks, while others grow slowly over several months. The bony swellings are very hard and quite immobile. You can’t move the lump around with your hand because it is part of the bone. There is no effect on the animal’s health at first; this infection does not create illness. In later stages, the area may be painful and interfere with chewing. The lump may break through the skin eventually and discharge through one or more openings, oozing a little pus or some sticky honey-like fluid containing tiny hard yellow granules.
Lancing is of no help; the lump is composed of infected bone and can’t be drained. The oozing area may heal over, only to break out again. Attempting to drain it may be harmful. Opening the area may allow other pathogens to enter, resulting in more infection. When you see an animal with a swollen jaw or lump, feel the jaw and try to move the lump. A bony lump should not be lanced.
Teeth in the affected jawbone may become misaligned and cause pain when chewing. The animal doesn’t eat enough, losing weight. In severe cases, the infection spreads to softer tissues and involves the muscles and lining of the throat, interfering with the animal’s ability to belch and chew its cud. If swelling becomes extensive, it can interfere with breathing. The animal may become so thin that humane destruction is necessary, though it may take a year to get this bad. If the infection spreads to the esophagus and stomach, digestion becomes impaired, causing diarrhea or bloat.
A bony lump must be treated from the inside out, via the bloodstream that serves the bone. Consult your vet. Usual treatment is sodium iodide into the jugular vein, repeated in 10 days. Even this treatment is not always successful in halting the bone infection. The lump may stop growing for awhile and you can market the animal or you might get one or two more calves from a cow, then it starts again.
Have you experienced lump jaw in cattle? How did you treat it?
Originally published in the September/October 2009 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.