Udder edema is the accumulation of fluid in the udder region (and forward into the lower belly) around the time of calving that causes swelling and pressure within the udder.

Swelling is a normal part of calving in cows of all ages.

Heifers will begin to “bloom” up to a few months in advance of their first calving (mostly in the last month). Their tiny udder will slowly grow larger and may some days take on an odd shape as the fluids squish around from place to place. Remember, all this skin is stretching out for the first time!

Cows are more likely to get mild to moderate edema closer to calving (2 weeks or less) and tend to recover more quickly than first time calvers.

Notice on the cow in the picture, under her belly is loose and full of liquid. This is the fluid retention settling from gravity into a low spot. More common in first-time calvers than in older cows. It will go away on its own over a few week period.

The edema will move around like putty depending on how the cow lays. If she is always laying on one side, then the swelling will get pushed all to one side also. Or maybe she switches back and forth, then one day she might have a huge right rear quarter and the next day a huge left rear quarter. It’s not mastitis, it’s just all that mess floating around.

Rosalia1I you are concerned that the swelling is putting too much pressure on the crease (udder cleft), then you can rub lotion into the crease. Put your arm between her back legs and rub the cream along the seam all the way up to the top of her rear udder. Work in the cream and rub from the bottom of the udder up to the very top of the udder and repeat in an upward motion to help move the fluid out of the udder. This works best if done after milking the cow and for up to 10-20 minutes. (http://www.agromedia.ca/ADM_Articles/content/freshcow.pdf)

A good lotion to use is one that contains Tea Tree Oil and Peppermint Essential Oils (EO). The brand name Udder Comfort, Udder Mint etc. is very expensive. If you feel comfortable making your own lotion, you can purchase the essential oils fairly inexpensively online and add them to a base.

My base lotion is:

  • 2/3 shea butter
  • 1/3 olive oil
  • A few drops each Peppermint and Tea Tree Oil

You can experiment with lotions from what you have on hand (or purchase along with the EO’s). I liked the thicker cream for winter time, which can get very cold (chapped teats!).

When milking, massage each area of the udder to attempt complete milkout. (You may not get a complete milk-out for the first few milkings, and even then, will not get a super soft collapsed udder when empty – this takes time: weeks!

Watch for sores on the inside of the leg where the filled out udder can rub on the inside of the leg and cause sores. If sores are detected, try to keep the area clean but also use some ointment or baby powder to keep the friction down so the leg can move smoothly without causing more sores. ** Be careful, if the udder has cracked skin or sores, the peppermint lotion may cause additional irritation, so plain oils should be used for sensitive skin**

Rosalia32A cow with edema will have swollen teats, so the first few times milking her may be quite difficult. Do not lose hope, each milking should become easier and easier!

Limit intake of salt, sodium bicarbonate, and potassium to help limit edema.

Allow for moderate exercise for the cow. An active cow will heal more quickly than a stationary cow. Do limit activities that may harm the suspensory ligaments (ie. Do not let the cow run out to pasture).

Every cow gets edema at calving time, and almost every cow will lose all of the edema within the period of one month or so. General care is adequate in treating edema unless milking time and cow health is seriously hindered by edema that is severe.

For serious, detrimental edema (rare):

  • Once fresh, if edema is severe, a quick way to reduce it is to milk the cow 3x a day for a week or more.
  • We do not recommend pre-milking a cow before she calves. Occasionally though, the cow will be dripping streams of milk or have an enormous udder, so pre-milking may be necessary in that case. (If pre-milking, be sure to save and freeze enough colostrum for the calf when it is born!)
  • Oxytocin may be used to improve let-down, but should only be used on a rare occasion to prevent risk of dependency.
  • Dexamethasone can be prescribed by a vet if the edema is outrageously bad.
  • A cow with a slipped median suspensory ligament will hold in permanent edema, which does not go away no matter what you try. (More like scar tissue & inability to milk out completely, so fluid retention, at this point, but just to look at her, looks a lot like calving edema) Try to avoid buying a cow with a weak or slipped ligament. (Flat between the rear teats, where there is not much crease.) If your cow does have a weak ligament, it’s not the end of the world, but long-term protection of the udder from further damage is important.
  • TMR, a “hot” diet can cause excess swelling in the udder (as well as in other parts of the body such as the joints), even well after calving. Avoid feeding a diet too high in energy (too much grain or silage) at any point in a cow’s life.

11 thoughts on “Edema

  1. My Jersey calved Sunday night. It’s now Wednesday. She is our first dairy cow, but we have had dairy goats before (although huge difference.) Her milk has not really come in yet, although it’s getting better. However, there is one quarter that I can get nothing but small drips out of. It is not hot, nor does what I get out seem clumpy. It doesn’t cause her pain when I massage it and she doesn’t flinch when I try to milk it. Nothing will come out however. It seems very swollen. I have used peppermint oil with coconut oil and will add tea tree oil tomorrow to the mixture. Do you think this is edema and what should I do? Thanks!


    • Do you know her past history? Has she calved before, have you milked her (before she was dried off for this calving, for example), and did the prior owner say anything about a “shy” or “dry” quarter?

      If the quarter is shy, you may just get little to no milk out of it. The cause could be injury to that quarter as a heifer, or could be the result of a bout with mastitis (a bacterial infection in the udder). Edema will still occur in this quarter, maybe moreso because you’re not able to milk it out, so the blood flow is limited. If you know it’s shy/dry, just leave it alone. If you think she should be milking out of it, then I would be concerned there might be something plugging it. In that case, it would really be best to have a vet out to examine and even maybe use a tool to insert up the teat to allow flow or remove the restriction.

      Keep using the peppermint and tea tree oils – great stuff!


      • This is her second freshening. There is no history of mastitis and all four quarters were working properly. She was hand milked before. I was able to get several squirts of milk out of it this morning, but that was it. It still is not hot and not causing her any pain. It just doesn’t matter what I do, I can get any down. I have seen those devices that you can put in to allow the milk to flow out. I considered getting one and seeing if it helps. We live very far out and having a vet to check her wouldn’t be easy. Besides, they are not experienced with dairy cows in our area. I will keep up with the oils. Let me know if you think I should do or try anything else. Thanks!


      • Laura, If you know all four quarters were working when you dried her off, then there is most definitely a problem…. but what is it? ;)

        It could be a number of things, we’ve seen where cows can get a kind of “stone” that blocks the teat canal – I believe our vet used a tool that he put up the teat to extract it. I think someone on the KFC forum (familycow.proboards.com) had this happen recently and they were able to buy the tool online and do it themselves (like you, no vet…). Don’t mistake it with a “cannula” though which is just a little plastic blunt end “needle” that allows for milk flow. You could always try a cannula, but it might be too narrow for a stone. Be sure to use only sterile new cannulas (etc) and only in emergencies like this. Also, use an alcohol swab on the teat and a second on the teat end to get it super clean before inserting anything. Risk of pushing bacteria into the quarter.

        Another thought, could be she had subclinical mastitis when you dried her off and is calving in “shy” due to ongoing damage – in that case you would need to try to get enough milk (3cc) to send a sample to a milk lab.

        Third thought, new active mastitis with chunks blocking the teat canal – massaging and frequent milking “should” get it to flow. Hard to ID unless you have a CMT (California Mastitis Test) and send in milk sample(s).

        Massage the dickens out of that quarter when applying lotions/oils. Be careful to always work/milk out that quarter last to avoid contaminating the good three quarters. If you just really get stumped, you could consider using antibiotics (can’t do milk samples for a couple weeks after giving antibiotics, though, keep in mind!). Feeding extra garlic, probiotics, etc. things to boos immune system are always helpful.


  2. Pingback: Twice a Day Milking a Once a Day Cow | grassfood.

  3. HI I have a cow that calved Sunday. He’s been on her this whole time but she was looking awful full so we decided to milk her last night with the machine. All 4 quarters gave milk but 2 quarters are pretty hard and still looked full after milking. Her udder & or teats are not hot, no redness and not one clump in any of the milk. She doesn’t seem uncomfortable when I touch them, rub into them (peppermint oil) with a real good massage. I have seen the calf drink from all of her teats but of course I do not stand out there all day and watch. This is her second calf, first with us. Any advice?


    • Edema can last up to a month and sounds like what you are describing.

      If this is a beef cow you are describing, they can nurse their calves without any additional care. For almost all dairy breeds, we recommend milking out twice a day. even if share milking, the cows almost always make more milk than one calf can consume, especially a newborn. If you do not milk regularly, you risk serious reduction in milk production and mastitis.


  4. Great! Gracie is acting like she is thinking about having a baby! (But I wish she would wait a little bit because 1.she’s a heifer and 2. we have snow on the ground but its melting pretty quick!) I’m glad it’s nothing harmfull to her udder (of course unless she has edema really bad) Thank’s again I’m getting soo excited for this!


  5. Thank’s, this really helped me! I have a first time heifer and half of her bag is like swollen more than the other one but she doesn’t act like it hurts her, she is fixing to have her baby any time! :) wish me luck I hope I can do everything right!.


    • Hope things go well for you! Edema looks scary and may last a while, but as long as you milk her out twice (or three!) times a day, she will keep improving her whole lactation. :) Good luck!


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