Veterinary Wisdom

Mastitis in 1918


I was doing housecleaning the other day and revisited an old book that my brother gave me years ago.

It was published in 1918 with this rather long title: “Farm knowledge: A complete manual of successful farming written by recognized authorities in all parts of the country: Based on sound principles and the actual experience of real farmers — ‘The farmer’s own cyclopedia.’”

The title page said, “Prepared exclusively for Sears, Roebuck and Co.”

More seasoned readers of this article may remember that Sears was the Amazon of the old times. One could get almost anything from them, from small things like chicks to larger things like a house. Being a veterinarian, I started paging through the chapter on animal health, and since I have been working on a paper about mastitis, I decided to see if there was any wisdom regarding mastitis in dairy cows.

From Section 31: “The udder becomes swollen, red, hot and tender, and the milk becomes a pale yellow, whey-like or blood-tinged fluid (serum) containing clots or cures. Fever and loss of appetite are rare. There may be some stiffness in walking. Mild attacks tend to subside in six to eight days.”

That is a nice job describing clinical, grade 1 or grade 2 mastitis. Not much has changed here in the last 106 years.

Treatments however, have changed.

The book said, “Give 12-18 ounces Epsom or Glauber’s salts and 1 pint of linseed oil in 3 pints of warm water. Give a heifer one-half ounce of fluid extract of poke root and 2 drams of powdered saltpeter … in water twice daily as a drench or otherwise. Every two hours, bathe the udder with hot water, massage well and strip away the milk. Hot poultices of oatmeal, flaxseed meal and bran or spent hops may be used instead of hot water fomentations. If the udder is very large, support it with a wide bandage around the body. Rub the udder thoroughly three times daily with a mixture of one part each of turpentine and fluid extracts of poke root and belladonna leaves and five parts of warm melted lard, sweet oil, lard oil or lanolin.”

Wow, that is a lot. Let’s translate.

Glauber’s salt, or Mirabilite, is anhydrous sodium sulfate. It has been used as a purgative laxative and anti-inflammatory medicine. Flaxseed oil is a source of omega-3 fatty acids, which, if taken regularly, have been claimed to help with cardiovascular health. It is also advocated as an anti-inflammatory agent and laxative.

Poke root, or poke weed, has been used to treat all sorts of conditions in herbal medicine, including mastitis in people. It is, however, toxic; though, one-half ounce of fluid extract to a 1,000-pound animal probably did little harm.

Saltpeter, or potassium nitrate, in addition to being an ingredient in gunpowder has been used in herbal medicine. Purportedly, it has antibacterial activity but also causes smooth muscle relaxation, most notably in blood vessels.

Belladonna, or deadly nightshade, also has been used for herbal remedies. It contains the drugs atropine and scopolamine, which are used to regulate heart rate. It is extremely toxic. The seed meal poultices were used to try to reduce swelling of the udder as was the hot water.

More from the book, this time from Section 32 regarding acute mastitis: “May come on at once. Most cases are caused by germs which enter the udder through the blood or lymph circulations, the milk ducts or wounds. It may also come from contaminated floors, other affected cattle, their milk or their vaginal discharges; and it is often carried by the milkers’ hands. Symptoms include chill followed by fever; loss of appetite and cessation of cud chewing; hot, doughy swelling of the abdominal wall and pus-like, clotty milk which may have a foil odor; abscesses, which may form and discharge pus by the glands. Quarters are permanently ruined for milk secretion unless prompt, thorough treatment checks and cures the attack, which rarely happens.”

This sounds a lot like acute, toxic mastitis. Today, farmers often assume that these symptoms come only with coliform infections, but that is not necessarily true as many other organisms can cause similar attacks.

The recommended treatments make up a pretty long list including, “hot drinks of tea, coffee or flaxseed tea sweetened with molasses … essence of ginger and half a cupful of whiskey or brandy. For fever, give in water 10 drops tincture of aconite and 10 drops fluid extract of belladonna.” 

Treatment also included saltpeter, iodide of potash and a variety of poultice preparations. The final treatment is to “cut off a portion of the teat or slit it open to allow free drainage and fatten the cow for the butcher.”

There is also a section on contagious mastitis where it states that it is “caused by germs, notably those called streptococci. … The milk becomes infective and dangerous for people and animals.”

Mastitis has been around since there have been cows. Even in 1918, it was recognized that at least some forms of mastitis were caused by microorganisms, and some of the streptococci were contagious. We might laugh at the treatments recommended back then, but I suspect the same will be true of our treatments in another 106 years. Farmers at that time also knew that sometimes there was no satisfactory solution except to fatten up for the butcher.

Jim Bennett is one of four dairy veterinarians at Northern Valley Dairy Production Medicine Center in Plainview, Minnesota. He consults on dairy farms in other states. He and his wife, Pam, have four children. Jim can be reached at [email protected].


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