Wooden Tongue and Lumpy Jaw in Cattle

These two diseases of cattle are often put together as they are chronic infections of the mouth of cattle, however they are caused by completely different bacteria. The bacterium causing wooden tongue affects the soft tissue of the mouth and neck (and occasionally elsewhere) especially the tongue, while the bacterium causing lumpy jaw affects bony tissue of the head, particularly the lower jaw, which then spreads to include the soft tissue. In both cases bacterial infection leads to swelling of the affected area and the formation of an abscess.

Both of these diseases have become much less common in the UK over the last twenty years, particularly lumpy jaw.

In both cases the bacterium gets into the body through damage, usually as a result of sharp objects in the feed or, for lumpy jaw, erupting molar teeth. Both diseases are most commonly seen in adult cattle over two years of age.

Clinical Signs

Wooden tongue:

  • Drooling and salivating
  • Difficulty eating
  • Swelling between and under the jaw bones
  • Tongue often protrudes
  • Swollen, hard, ‘wooden’ tongue is very common, but swellings can occur in cheek

Lumpy jaw:

  • Drooling and salivating is less marked than with wooden tongue
  • Difficulty eating
  • Swelling around jaw bone – this develops over a long period of time
  • Abscess may break up and granular pus appear
  • Fracture of the jaw bone can also occur
  • In some cases where the nasal bones are affected, the first sign is difficulty breathing


Clinical signs are strongly suggestive, but bacteriology can be useful to confirm. Ask your vet to check if you are unsure whether the infection is in the bone or not.


  • For wooden tongue, treatment with antibiotics can be effective if given early. Late treatment is pointless
  • For lumpy jaw, the disease is usually picked up too late for treatment to be effective


In most cases only single cases are seen, so prevention is not normally feasible. However, herd outbreaks have occurred when feeding hay or straw containing sharp plant material such as brambles, thistles or gorse. Indeed the reduction in the UK of these diseases is likely to be associated with the change from hay to silage as the source of preserved forage for cattle.

Article by Richard Laven PhD BVetMed MRCVS