When the cow’s udder is too big with zero milk

Dear Daktari, I am regular reader of your informative articles. I have a farm in Oloishobor in Ngong. My first heifer gave birth without any complications. However, when it came to milking, I realised the udder was hard and produced very little milk. The udder is hard and warmer compared to the other body parts and is swollen.  At first I thought this was normal but now I suspect all is not well. What could be the problem? Egidi

Thank you Egidi for reaching out to us. From what you have explained, I suspect it is udder edema, which is the accumulation of excess fluid in the space outside the vascular system around the udder. This condition is common in animals calving down for the first time. The accumulation of the fluid is a result of both blood pressure and osmotic pressure which are caused by a complex mix of factors in pregnant cows.

The fluid is composed of water, blood and lymph. It is relatively common in heifers and decreasing with increasing births (parity). It is also common in ‘would be’ high milk producers. The causes include genetic factors which make it hereditary. Had you enquired about its history, most likely the mother could have suffered the same. Having such information can help in increasing the risk perception index of the farmer for the condition and subsequently a timely and quick medical response.

Nutrition is key

Nutrition is another factor that predispose animals to udder edema. Nutrition during the dry period (that period when you stop milking a pregnant cow to prepare it for parturition) may cause udder edema. A lot of sodium and potassium during this period has been shown to cause the accumulation of extra-vascular fluid just before or after birth. Mineral licks might be given sparingly to avoid ingestion of a lot of the culprit minerals.

Normal physiological changes that come with the pregnancy and the increasing size of the foetus can also interfere with the vascular floor of body fluids from the udder resulting in udder edema. Lack of exercise before birth as happens with most zero grazing systems also predisposes an animal to udder edema.  

While the condition is normally acute and clears off but when prolonged it can damage membranes around the udder and predispose the animal to clinical mastitis. The edema can affect either half of the udder or the whole of it depending on the cause of the condition.

How to prevent and manage udder edema

Normally udder edema will clear on its own, however regular massaging with warm water can improve blood flow. Pre-parturition (before birth) milking has also been shown to prevent udder edema. If it does not clear off within a day, urgently call in the veterinary doctor.

Meanwhile, do not feed a dry cow on a lot of grains and reduce intake of sodium and potassium in pregnant cows. 


Treatment involves regular and gentle massaging as you compress the udder with a clean towel soaked in clean warm water. This should be done regularly until the udder softens and the swelling reduces.

Your veterinary doctor can use diuretics to get rid of the excess fluid and corticosteroids to treat inflammation that follows damage to the tissues around the udder.


Prevention can be initiated if the hereditary history of the animal is known. Always try to know a cow’s history when buying it. This will involve being on the lookout for the above signs and putting preventive measures in place. If the animal is zero-grazed, let it walk around to exercise towards the tail end of the pregnancy. This will subsequently improve blood flow throughout the body.

[The writer is the vet of the year in 2016 and works with the Kenya Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Council (KENTTEC). You can reach him on [email protected]]

Want to get latest farming tips and videos?
Join Us

Dairy Farming;Milk