​Wooden tongue, lumpy jaw

Treatment of lumpy jaw and wooden tongue is most effective when the disease is caught in its early stages.

Treatment of lumpy jaw and wooden tongue is most effective when the disease is caught in its early stages.

Scientists sometimes give confusing names to diseases in people or animals. 

Many are complex and technical, and some, like “Malaria”, came about because of wrong assumptions about the cause of a disease. The name Malaria comes from the Italian “mala aria”, literally “bad air”, because it was originally thought the disease could be caught from poor quality air around marshland. In fact, we now know that Malaria is actually spread by mosquitoes, but the name stuck.

However, while there are plenty of obscure disease names, occasionally we end up with a memorable name which describes a disease pretty well. Two great examples in cattle are ‘wooden tongue’ and ‘lumpy jaw’.

These two diseases are seen sporadically but are fairly common. They are similar in the way they present, but are caused by different bacteria. In the past few weeks I’ve seen cases of both wooden tongue and lumpy jaw in cattle.

In the past few weeks I’ve seen cases of both wooden tongue and lumpy jaw in cattle

Local Land Services district vet, Nigel Gillan

Wooden tongue and lumpy jaw start when there’s some form of injury to the lining of the mouth, most often the result of rough feed (such as rough hay or grass seeds). The wound can provide an entry point for bacteria, allowing an infection to establish.

With wooden tongue, the infection mostly spreads to the soft tissues of the tongue. The disease can develop quite quickly, and the tongue can become very firm, swollen, and ulcerated. As you can imagine, this makes eating and swallowing difficult, so affected animals will often drool excessively and can lose weight. Recently I saw an affected animal with a swelling below the jaw which resembled “bottle jaw”.

With lumpy jaw, the infection spreads into the bone of the jaw, causing hard swelling and deformities. Classically, animals with lumpy jaw end up with a large, hard swelling on one side of the face. Thick pus might be seen draining from openings in the skin.  In severe cases, this growth impairs the animal’s ability to eat and chew. Lumpy jaw develops much more slowly than wooden tongue.

Treatment is most effective if it’s started early. We do have medications which are quite effective, but the bony changes associated with advanced lumpy jaw are essentially irreversible. It’s best to get in touch with your vet if you see an animal you think may be affected.