Steer with a Cheek Abscess

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My yearling steer, Stewart, has an abscess.

Back in April I had bought a load of coarse, stemmy hay. I wasn’t very happy with it, especially since it cost top dollar, but there wasn’t much to choose from. Farms everywhere around here were out of hay, due to last summer’s drought. My older hay supplier had emptied his barn down to the sweepings. My erratic younger hay supplier hadn’t even bothered to return my calls or emails. So when I was able to purchase this load of hay from a new man, I’d been relieved and grateful.

The problem with coarse hay (apart from lower nutrition and palatability) is that when it’s put into feeders and mangers the animals have to plunge their faces and necks into food that’s stiff and poky. Little slivers of hay can pierce the skin and become infected.

My ewe Blackberry developed an abscess on the front of her shoulder where she leaned into the hay feeder. I watched it, and after a few weeks it subsided and went away.

At the same time, my steer Stewart developed an abscess on his right cheek. His abscess did not go away, but swelled to the size of a golf ball. (See photo above.)

At least I thought it was an abscess. There is also a condition in cattle known as Lumpy Jaw (how’s that for a name). Lumpy Jaw too is caused by eating rough forage but in this version the hay pokes into the inside of the mouth, often in a recently emptied baby tooth socket, and the infection pervades the bone. Eventually the animal’s jaw is so distorted it cannot eat and may have difficulty breathing.

I did not think Stewart’s infection was in the bone. However the lump — I believed, from my limited ability to touch it, as he is not hand-tame — was not soft like the usual abscess but hard. Though I’ve dealt with simple abscesses before, in dogs and sheep, I had a flash vision of myself lancing this one and finding a strange bony overgrowth.

I called my vet, David, to ask him if I could cope with the lump myself. He did not think so. In fact he strongly doubted it was an abscess, because abscesses usually don’t stick around for several months, but burst and go away. Like Blackberry’s.

Oh, dear. Even though money is very, very tight, I decided I needed to have David come to the farm for a look.

Before David arrived on Thursday afternoon, I tricked Stewart into Moxie’s stanchion with a half-can of grain. Once he was safely locked in, I put on a halter. He was slightly perturbed to be confined, but not unduly. He licked up his grain.

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David arrived, felt the lump, and to my relief said immediately, “Well, it’s not Lumpy Jaw.”

But what was it? It still felt too hard for a normal abscess. He decided to try to aspirate some of the contents with a needle.

He shaved the lump and washed the site.

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Then he stuck the lump with a large-gauge needle. Yellow pus! Hooray! It was indeed an abscess, just one with an unusually rigid capsule.

Now with a quick plunge David pierced the lump with a scalpel. Stewart jumped in protest but then stood quietly as David drained the contents into a jam jar.

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“Want something for soup?” he said, passing me the jar half-filled with serum, blood, and bright yellow curds.

Unfortunately the hard walls of the abscess did not seem to allow it to drain properly. Stewart did not like David’s squeezing.

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Nor was he happy when, with some difficulty, David flushed the hole with a solution of Betadine, hydrogen peroxide, and sterile saline.

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However, David proceeded and at last it was done. I let Stewart out of the stanchion and he scampered back to his stall in relief. I went outside to mow, equally relieved. I’d done the right thing. All was taken care of.

Or maybe not. When I returned to the barn for evening chores, Stewart’s face was so swollen that his halter prevented him from opening his mouth to eat his supper. I removed the halter and called the vet’s office to report that the original golf ball of swelling had turned into half a cantaloupe. The secretary promised to pass along the message.

Within the hour David called me back. The swelling was mysterious (I always worry when medical professionals are mystified) but it should resolve by morning. If not, I might have to re-open the drainage hole in the abscess. Oh, dear.

By Friday morning, the cantaloupe had swelled to become a football.

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Stewart did not seem to be in pain. In fact, he was chewing his cud. But clearly nothing was draining.

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I’d have to open it. David had mentioned that I simply needed something to insert into the hole to break the scab and allow it to drain. I could even boil a nail. (“A nail?” Lucy said to me, horrified.) I called the office Friday morning to double-check. The assistant vet confirmed this, and added that another option was to use a sterilized Exacto knife, if the hole had to be enlarged. I prepared both, my stomach shrinking.

Naturally, Stewart was not eager to be trapped again in the stanchion. However, I did not rush him and eventually his greed for sweet feed overcame his concern. I bolted the headlock.

I felt the huge swelling on his cheek. It was hard. Very little give under my fingers.

I gritted my teeth and with a quick motion (and trying not to close my eyes) forced the sterilized nail into the abscess hole. Stewart jumped but once the point was past the scab and in the abscess pocket, he stood quietly. I pulled the nail out. Unfortunately, nothing drained. He’d had a 16-penny nail an inch deep in his face and… nothing.

Oh, God.

I took up the Exacto knife with trembling hands. The next few minutes were terrible. I tried to do exactly as I’d seen David do, and plunge the blade into the abscess with a swift stab. In my case I was trying to enlarge David’s original hole, so aim was important. The abscess walls were so hard and thick it was like trying to cut open a tennis ball — the blade wanted to bounce off the hard surface — so a quick puncture was the only way.

Naturally, with the stab Stewart jumped in fright and pain. I was deeply upset. And still nothing drained.

Allen was just putting away the tractor. I went out and pulled him into the barn. He inspected Stewart’s face.

“You’re gonna to need to make a bigger cut,” he observed. “Slice it across.” He made a swift cutting motion with his index finger.

I tried to explain how hard this abscess was. “It’s not like slitting the surface skin. This thing is very deep and thick. Like a grapefruit rind. You’d practically have to stick the knife in and saw it. I just can’t cut him like that.” I tried to hand him the knife, but he backed away.

I ain’t gonna do it! You gotta. You gotta get that thing open.”

I felt sick but decided to try one more time. Again, a stab. Again, poor Stewart jumped. I rubbed his back and crooned to him. A little bit of serum and blood now drained from the abscess, but not much.

However, I was done.

I washed Stewart’s face, gave him another treat of sweet feed, and let him out of the stanchion. Then I called the vet’s office and asked them to return on their next trip through my town. I think they will need to anesthetize the cheek and make a two inch slice through the walls of the abscess to get it to collapse and drain reliably. I had emailed photos; on seeing them, the young vet exclaimed but reiterated that Stewart’s swelling was an unprecedented reaction to opening an abscess — she speculates that perhaps he is allergic to Betadine.

At this point of course I am sorry I decided to treat the abscess at all. It had posed no health problem, just a cosmetic one. However I hadn’t been sure of  my diagnosis (even David had thought I was wrong) and I’d wanted to be a responsible caregiver.

In the meantime Stewart is still eating and chewing his cud and the swelling, though no better, is no worse.

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Lucy and I have to drive downstate today. I am weary.

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One Response to Steer with a Cheek Abscess

  1. Zephyr Hill says:

    Hi, in searching the internet about a lump on my Dexter’s jaw I found this post. I was hoping to find out how everything turned out for Stewart, if you wouldn’t mind sharing an update. My vet thinks it’s an abscess from a tooth (and it looks like it has opened and drained on its own.) He took a culture, but I have to wait a week for results so I’m still looking for answers. I’d love to hear any suggestions you have.

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