Actinobacillosis (Woody Tongue) and Actinomycosis (Lumpy Jaw)

Barry Whitworth, DVM Area Food/Animal Quality and Health Specialist for Eastern Oklahoma

Actinobacillosis and Actinomycosis both of which are better known as “woody tongue” and “lumpy jaw” respectively are two common infections seen in cattle.  Occasionally, both of the bacteria are seen in other animals such as sheep, pig, horses, and dogs.  In cattle “woody tongue” is associated with the tongue, head, and neck regions of cattle.  “Lumpy jaw” is manifested as a bone infection in the upper and lower jaws or other bones in the head region of cattle. On rare occasions, both organisms may be found in other areas of the body and internal organs.  There is a tendency by some to lump them together as one disease, but they are two separate diseases.

The bacterium that causes “woody tongue” is called Actinobacillus lignieresii.  The microorganism does not survive long in the environment.  It can live around 5 days outside the animal host.  A. lignieresii is part of the normal flora of the oral cavity and upper gastrointestinal tract of cattle.  The bacterium gains entrance to tissue through abrasions or penetrating wounds.  This may occur with abrasive feeds or hays.

Actinobacillosis has two forms.  One form is small circular swellings scattered in the subcutaneous tissue or lymph nodes around the head, jaw, and neck area.  These swellings enlarge and form thick walled abscesses.  If they rupture, a white or slightly greenish pus is discharged.  Unless treated, the disease will progress and be fatal.  The other form is the classical “woody tongue”.  In this form the tongue is swollen and firm when palpated.  The first thing a producer may noticed is excessive drooling.  These cattle have difficulty chewing which may result in rapid weight loss.  The tongue may protrude from the mouth.

Actinomyces bovis is the bacterium responsible for the disease “lumpy jaw”.  The bacterium is a normal inhabitant of the oral cavity, upper respiratory tract, and digestive tract of animals.  Similar to “woody tongue” the organism gains entry to tissue through damage to the oral cavity by sharp objects such as stickers, grass awns, or foreign bodies.  Erupting teeth are another avenue for the bacterium to gain entry to the oral tissues.

Once A. bovis gains entry to the tissues in the oral cavity, there is a low-grade inflammatory reaction.  This is followed by proliferation of scar tissue and inflammatory cells that result in a tumor-like mass.  This mass invades the bony structures of the head.  The most common sites of infection are the upper and lower jaw bones of cattle.  The infected area may swell and be very hard.  There may be some abscesses  associated with the lesions.  Radiographs of the infection reveals a honeycomb appearance of the bone.  The disease is chronic and is followed by anorexia and weight loss.  Without treatment the animal will die.

Diagnosis Actinobacillosis and Actinomycosis is usually based on clinical signs and physical examination.  Additional laboratory test may be run to confirm the diagnosis.

The standard therapy for both conditions is sodium iodide repeated at 7 to 10-day intervals until resolution of clinical signs.  If the treatment is started early in  “wooden tongue”, 2 or 3 treatments are  usually sufficient.  “Lumpy jaw” may require more treatments.  Treatments can be continued until signs of iodide toxicity.  Signs of iodide toxicity are excessive tear production, anorexia, and dandruff.  Producers need to be aware that sodium iodide has been shown to cause abortion in cattle, but this is a rare occurrence.  Besides sodium iodide, many veterinarians will use additional antibiotics to treat both conditions.  For the best treatment advice, producers should consult with their veterinarian. 

Producers need to be aware that both of these conditions require multiple treatments to have any chance of success, and treatment failures with both conditions are common.  Once abscesses are found in the skin on lymph node with A. lignieresii, prognosis is poor.  In cases of “lumpy jaw” with extensive bony lesions, the best outcome possible is to stop the development.  The animal will still have a swollen jaw. 

There is no vaccine for A. lignieresii or A. bovis, so producers should follow biosecurity protocols.  Sick animals should be isolated until well.  All feed and water troughs should be cleaned and disinfected.  If several animals are infected, the source of the cause of abrasion in the mouth should be identified and eliminated. 

If cattle producers would like more information about “woody tongue” and “lumpy jaw”, they should contact their local veterinarian or Oklahoma State University County Agriculture Extension Educator.

Read more great articles in the August issue of Oklahoma Farm & Ranch.