Mouth and Jaw Problems
February 2024

Woody Tongue is a relatively common disease in cattle. It is a bacterial infection caused by a pathogen called Actinobacillus lignieresii. This bacteria normally lives in the cow’s mouth without causing any trouble, but when there is damage to the tongue or inside of the mouth, the bacteria takes the opportunity to invade the damaged tissue and start a particularly painful infection. The damage usually comes from coarse feed, gravel or weeds. The affected tissue appears massively thickened and is very tough. It often appears yellow as it contains many small abscesses and may have associated ulcers. Externally you may see swelling and drooling, and you will likely see a drop in production as the cow won’t be eating much due to the pain. The bug that causes Woody Tongue is not susceptible to treatment with many types of antibiotics, but when the correct drugs are used this condition is usually treated successfully. It is important to include some form of pain relief in your treatment of Woody Tongue as it is exceptionally painful.

There are several viral diseases in New Zealand that can cause lesions that look similar to Woody Tongue, including BVD and MCF. It is highly important that a veterinarian rules out these conditions as they will not respond to routine treatments, and there is risk for them spreading from cow to cow. Although not present in New Zealand, Foot and Mouth disease can cause ulcers that are similar in appearance to Woody Tongue. Foot and Mouth disease poses significant economic and animal welfare risk to New Zealand’s livestock industry so it is important we investigate mouth issues thoroughly to rule out FMD as a possibility. There are also a number of other diseases that cause swelling under and around the jaw. These include Johne’s disease and heart failure and are very commonly misdiagnosed as Woody Tongue by farmers.

Lumpy Jaw is another condition that can look quite similar to Woody Tongue, however this is caused by a different pathogen which can behave differently. The way in which an infection occurs is much the same as with Woody Tongue, but this bug (Actinomyces bovis)typically won't just stop at the soft tissues in the mouth and will spread infection to the bones of the jaw and face. The infection can cause permanent changes to the shape of the bones that you may notice externally. This change is irreversible. Lumpy Jaw doesn’t respond well to antibiotics, the recommended treatment is a highly irritant injection that should be given by a vet, but even then is not guaranteed to resolve the problem completely. If treatment is started earlier in the course of disease, success is more likely. Once again, the provision of pain relief as soon as the problem is noticed is paramount due to the highly painful nature of the condition.

Ultimately, there are a number of diseases that affect the mouths of cows, most of which are very painful and can cause dramatic issues with the welfare and productivity of affected animals. Some can be very insidious and may not respond to routine treatments. A quick and accurate diagnosis can be achieved by calling your vet out as soon as symptoms are noticed and gives the greatest likelihood of providing a successful treatment and more rapid return to normal function.