Udder edema is the accumulation of fluid in the udder region (and forward into the lower belly) that develops in the weeks prior to calving that can cause redness, swelling and pressure within the udder.
Edema is a normal part of calving in cows of all ages. Most cases of edema resolve on their own through routine milk-outs.
Dairy heifers tend to have the most significant edema. Their newly forming udder 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.
Cows with udder conformation issues will tend to have more severe edema than cows with healthy udder conformation. For example, if a cow has a slipped median suspensory ligament (the the ligament holding the right and left sides of the udder together and in place). Or, if a cow has a “meaty” aka “fleshy” udder that has a lot of tissue but not a lot of room for expansion may have edema that is harder to purge after calving.
Dairy cows tend to develop edema more than beef cows because dairy animals are bred to produce a larger amount of milk than beef cows.
What does edema look like?
Edema starts out looking like the cow is developing an udder (which she is) but edema continues on as excess fluid that can stretch the udder to larger than normal and uncomfortable size.
The udder may go from feeling soft and supple to feeling more like modeling clay. Note in the picture, there is a red line where the median-suspensory ligament should be (you should be able to see a nice keep cleft between her two rear quarters, but it’s flat instead).
The fluid is mobile – if a cow lays on one side, the fluid may all squish to the other side. Then that cow stands up and you may think your cow has suddenly developed mastitis on one side. A good way to know that she just stood up and that it’s not mastitis is that you may see wrinkles on the smaller side and no wrinkles on the fuller side. If you watch the cow frequently enough, you’ll likely come to realize that she lays on the same side each day, so you’ll begin to recognize a normal pattern.
Many people mistake edema for mastitis. Edema can be differentiated from mastitis in a few ways:
- If the edema has shifted to one side, the whole side should be larger than the other side (for example, both front and rear quarter on the right side are fuller feeling than the front and rear quarter on the left side). In mastitis, one single quarter will be significantly larger than the other three. (This can happen in edema, depending on the previous mastitis history of your cow, so is helpful to have past lactation records).
- A quarter with mastitis will tend to:
- feel warmer to the touch than the other quarters.
- feel tender – a cow may kick at you when you touch it but not when you touch the other quarters.
- feel “rock hard” compared to “firm”
Where does the edema show up?
Edema usually starts in only the udder.
On some animals, the fluid will gradually extend forward toward the belly and/or upward toward the vulva and/or into the rear legs around the region of the udder.
In this photo, notice how under her belly is loose and full of liquid. This is excess fluid retention settling from gravity from the udder into a low spot, the belly.
More common in first-time calvers than in older cows.
Do not do anything to the fluid in the belly – leave it alone. Do not massage or mess with it, you’ll likely just end up getting kicked! Edema in the belly will go away on its own over a few week period.
Edema medical care:
The best cure for edema is frequent milk-out! Milking two or three times per day on a routine is the quickest way to reduce edema.
When milking, massage each area of the udder to attempt complete milkout.
You may not get a complete milk-out for the first few colostrum milkings – the edema can inhibit milk flow. For the first few milkings, do the best you can to massage out what the cow can give without leaving the machine on for too long. The udder may not feel changed.
Edema usually lasts for a few days to a few weeks. During the first several milkings, the cow’s udder will not get a super soft collapsed feel when empty – this takes time – but you should begin to feel gradual softening, wrinkling, and collapsing of the udder after each consecutive milk-out. A 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!
The idea of reducing edema by milking the cow is only effective if the cow is letting down her milk. To read more about how to tell if a cow is holding up her milk and the practical use of oxytocin when needed, click on this link and scroll about 2/3 of the way down: Teaching a Heifer to Milk
If you are concerned that the swelling is putting too much pressure on the crease (udder cleft), then you can rub lotion into the crease.
A good edema lotion to use is one that contains Tea Tree Oil and Peppermint Essential Oils (EO). The brand name Udder Comfort, Udder Mint etc. are very effective, yet expensive. If you feel comfortable making your own lotion, you can purchase the essential oils fairly inexpensively online and add them to a lotion base. I also like having the thicker cream on hand for winter time, when a lotion is substituted for teat dip when the weather is coldest (for preventing chapped teats!).
My base lotion is:
- 2/3 lard
- 1/3 olive oil
- Liquid from 10 capsules of Vitamin E
- 20 drops Peppermint essential oil
- 10 drops Tea Tree essential oil
Place the lard and olive oil in a pan on the stove. Cut the tips off of Vitamin E capsules and squeeze the liquid into the pan with the oils. Warm until soft or just liquid, then stir. Remove from stove and cool until starting to thicken. Add essential oils and whip together. Pour or scoop into a container.
Work in the cream by rubbing 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, for up to 5-10 minutes.
Edema Stress Sores:
Watch for sores on the inside of the leg where the swollen 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. We have had more luck using dry powder rather than ointments which tend to keep the area moist and more open to infection.
If infection occurs, first try to curb the infection by wiping the area with a rag soaked in diluted iodine water or diluted peroxide. Do this as frequently as possible, at least after each milking. Often the cow will lift her leg for you because she knows you’re going to make her feel better. 🙂 If the infection does not go away after several days, an antibiotic ointment may be necessary to clear up the infection.
** 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**
Allow for moderate exercise for the cow in an open paddock, alley, or field. Avoid box stalls or confined areas (unless the cow is in need of close supervision, such as for milk fever). An active cow will heal from edema 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).
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! Or purchase powdered calf colostrum to have on hand before the day of calving.)
- Oxytocin may be used to improve let-down, but should only be used on occasion to prevent risk of dependency.
- Dexamethasone can be prescribed by a vet if the edema is outrageously bad. We find Dex to be a “temporary fix” – like how banamine will mask a fever – Dex will temporarily reduce edema but the edema often comes back just as bad, if not worse, afterwards.
A cow with a slipped median suspensory ligament will often hold in permanent edema, which does not go away no matter what you try. This type of edema acts more like scar tissue & inability to milk out completely. Just to look at her, looks a lot like calving edema, but the edema never goes away. Try to avoid buying a cow with a weak or slipped ligament. (Flat between the rear teats, where there is not much cleft.) 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 short-fiber high moisture) at any point in a cow’s life. If a cow develops edema while on a hot ration, do what you can to reduce the intensity of the ration by adding in long-stemmed fiber & consider less grain and any supplements (ie: rumensin) that may be increasing milk production.
Last tips, on preventing edema:
- Maintain healthy body condition – over-conditioned heifers and cows are more likely to develop edema
- We have had better luck reducing edema by limiting the dry cow diet to grass hay and a little alfalfa, starting about a week before calving with a pound or so of grain, then waiting until after calving to increase grain consumption to the full amount.
- If you live in a climate with hot summers, attempt to calve out of season. We find that our winter-calving cows tend to not have a lot of edema. Spring and fall calving cows do often still have edema, but the milder temperatures at least may provide further comfort for the cow during this stressful time.
- Some wives-tales encourage limiting salt – we do not recommend this! Free choice salt and minerals – our dry cows consume more than our lactating cows, and for good reason – they’re growing another being!