Katika has mastitis. I think. Maybe.
See how her right rear quarter is swollen to twice the size of the left rear quarter? It is also hot, hard, and stiff. (Her whole udder has taken a beating with this latest lactation and is drooping lower than ever. It is becoming harder to fit my milk tote under her and still leave room for my hands. But that is a topic for another day.)
Katika is nine years old and has never had full-blown mastitis. This is less due to any superior care-giving on my part than to my great luck in starting out with a sturdy, healthy, low-maintenance mutt cow.
On Monday I had skimped on milking because I was rushing to cope with loading the lambs for the slaughterhouse. I did not think it would be a problem because Fee, Katika’s heifer calf, who is with her 24/7, is now ten weeks old and should keep her mostly milked out. On Tuesday Katika’s udder was engorged, as I expected. I milked as usual. On Thursday I noticed that the right rear quarter was still swollen and didn’t ever become soft and floppy, even when empty. On Friday morning I found the swelling and heat had spread into the right front quarter. I telephoned the vet from my milking stool.
Though I’ve never dealt with mastitis, over the last seven years I have followed the details of horrendous cases posted by my internet cow friends — gangrenous mastitis, anyone? where the entire udder bursts and sloughs off? — and now I was afraid.
The new, young vet associate in her 20s called back late Friday afternoon. She was polite but her impatience was barely concealed. She was sure it was simple mastitis. Didn’t I know never to skip a milking? “A dairy cow gives far too much milk for a calf to drink,” she explained, as if to an idiot. No, they didn’t carry the meds because the large dairies north of them — the practice is 45 minutes away — all stocked their own. I should pick up tubes of antibiotic teat infusions at Tractor Supply.
Luckily a friend was taking her daughter and Lucy to the city yesterday, and would pick up the prepaid meds for me. It was raining when I drove down to the farm for morning chores. I figured I’d just milk out Katika as much as possible and wait for the antibiotic to arrive.
Surprise! I was greeted by a familiar sight: Katika standing in the rain in the upper pasture, gazing dreamily off into the distance, while a young bull mounted her over and over. Clearly she was in standing heat. As I watched, eleven-month-old Duke bred her eight times in fifteen minutes.
I needed to milk out that swollen udder! I called her name. Katika turned her head but did not move. I shook a grain can. Usually this will bring Katika at a matronly trot. She looked at me demurely over her shoulder and did not budge. Duke meanwhile was happily busy and appeared unaware of my existence. However, there was no way I was going to walk into the pasture and try to pull my cow away from a rutting bull.
I fed everyone else and drove home to post questions on the Family Cow bulletin board. The replies I received fanned my own worries and I telephoned the veterinary office again. This time I asked for David, the older partner whom I’ve known for thirty years. When we finally spoke, I asked him to make an emergency farm call.
Fortunately Katika went out of heat by noon and I was able to get the cattle into the barn. After the strenuous sex of the last ten or twelve hours, teenaged Duke collapsed into his clean shavings with a sigh.
David arrived in the late afternoon. He is a comfortable person, small and wiry with a gentle smile.
On first viewing Katika’s swollen udder he thought it was definitely mastitis. “See how thin the milk is?” he asked, squirting it on his hand. It looked normal to me. Then when he saw there were no strings or lumps in the milk and that her temp was 102° F (also normal) he thought she probably had an injury/trauma to her bag. He wondered if when Katika was coming into heat, but not yet standing, Duke might have butted her in frustration!
I asked him to take a milk culture to check definitively for mastitis. He was skeptical of the suggestions I reported to him from my cow board (“Who is giving you all this?”) but I made it clear I wanted the culture. The farm call alone dwarfs the negligible cost of the test, and I want to be able to rule anything in or out. He said I would hear in 48 hours. I will call on Monday.
He did not believe an antibiotic was needed as she was eating and had no fever. My friend had already picked up the tubes of Today teat infusions but David does not want me to use them unless we get a positive culture.
In the meantime he gave Katika a shot of oxytocin in the base of her tail so I could milk her out. It is a magic drug — presto! instant milk letdown, exactly like I used to experience as a nursing mother when I heard a baby cry in the grocery store — but it didn’t allow her to release any more milk than before, just more immediately. The bad quarter (really, now, the bad half) remained stiff and swollen.
Finally David gave her an IV shot of banamine, a painkiller and anti-inflammatory, for discomfort. Katika, my normally mild-mannered cow, was not excited to have a long needle stuck in her jugular. Her stanchion would not work for this procedure so we snubbed her to a 6×6 post in her stall. I held the end of the rope while David stood at her shoulder, hypodermic poised. The moment she felt the needle her eyes rolled in her head, and as she threw herself around we were immediately reminded that my good girl is, in fact, 1200 pounds of cow who is always on her best behavior.
I wonder if my bullock Duke could really have hurt her. It seems unlikely. However he is the cockiest, most aggressive young bull I’ve ever had. For the past month I have carried a pitchfork in one hand, just in case, when I let the cattle out at night. While usually all the cattle, even my bulls, give way to Katika in the barn aisle, and always give way to Lucy’s horse Birch, recently I’ve noticed that Duke lowers his head and doesn’t readily give ground even to the horse until forced. More about this soon.
I will be glad to hear the results of the culture. For now I will simply try to keep Katika comfortable, and due to the medications in her system, will buy milk.