I’ve known about the condition mastitis for quite some time now, learning about it in an animal husbandry course I took in college, but I learned about it in farm animals like cows. And even though I’d taken numerous animal anatomy and physiology classes, biology and even a course in animal diseases, I never thought that this condition could manifest in our pets. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me, but it didn’t.
Mastitis is an infection, an inflammation of the mammary glands. Anything that ends in ‘itis’ means inflammation. I learned that in biology. Since the mammary glands, or teats, have an opening, they are susceptible to bacteria getting inside. Ordinarily, the glands aren’t doing anything, so the chance of bacteria crawling through that small opening is slim. However, when an animal lactates, or produces milk, then the gland is engorged and each time milk is expelled or the offspring nurses, there’s a chance that bacteria can make their way up into the gland.
Any warm-blooded animal runs a risk of mastitis, but we usually hear about farm animals like dairy cows because they are kept in a lactating state so that the gland is active all the time. With care and proper sterilization, the gland shouldn’t get infected, and rarely does these days.
Mastitis in Pets
Only recently did I start to think about mastitis because I have a Sphynx cat that I’m about to breed for the first time. I was consciously thinking about breeding and the kittens, weaning and keeping the bedding clean. That’s when I remembered learning about mastitis. I admit that I didn’t think too much about it at first because as I said above, I really thought it was only something dairy cows could get. But, my curiosity and caution got the better of me and I decided to do a little research.
That’s when I found out that pets can indeed get mastitis. Something strange I found out along the way is that a very small percentage of males can also get this condition, but it’s not very common at all. It’s usually in lactating females. It’s also more prevalent in dogs than cats.
It’s not the most devastating disease a pet can have, although left untreated, it can cause abscess of the teats or even a more invasive systemic infection or sepsis. This is why it’s important to catch it early on. If you have a pet that has just had a litter, you’ll need to make sure the bedding is always clean since unclean conditions can cause bacteria to flourish and then it’s easy for it to migrate to the teats. Also check the animals teats every day for signs of infection.
Signs of Infection
The most obvious sign of infection is one or more red or swollen teats. Of course a nursing mother will have engorged teats, but if they are red and more swollen than the others, it could be mastitis. Another thing to look for is a discharge other than milk or milk that is discolored or has a strange odor. Also, if the mother refuses to let her babies nurse, or shows others signs that her teats are sore, take her to the vet right away. If the infection has gone on for a while, the mother might lose her appetite or become lethargic. If you’re not vigilant in observing the mother and her babies, they might not be able to nurse and could die. So make sure the babies are nursing and gaining weight.
If you suspect mastitis in your pet, take her to the vet, keeping her babies close by so she doesn’t become more stressed. The vet will do an exam and if necessary, perform some lab tests. If the mastitis is obvious, the exam is probably all the vet will do. If not, the milk will be looked at through a microscope and possibly a bacteria culture will be done on the fluid to determine which bacteria is present.
If the disease has spread into the body, the vet will likely do blood cultures and aspirate fluid from the body. This is done with a syringe inserted into a particular area of the body that is infection and the fluid is withdrawn through the syringe and cultured or examined. Hopefully no one will have their animal get to this point.
Unless the condition has spread systemically, mastitis usually responds very well to antibiotics. During treatment, though, it’s important to keep the animal’s bed very clean and keep the teats clean as well. Placing a warm damp cloth on the teats for a few days will bring relief as well as help the infected fluid drain. If the animal doesn’t respond to the antibiotics, take her back right away for a different medication.
I assumed that during treatment the babies would have to be weaned from the mother and given supplemental milk, but I read that there’s a debate whether or not to do this. Some researchers apparently think that having the babies nurse will help with draining the fluid and by consuming the antibiotics themselves, it will keep them from becoming infected with the bacteria. I think it would be a good idea to ask for your vet’s recommendation about this matter.
Once your pet has healed from the mastitis, she should be able to continue nursing with no problem. In a worst case scenario, if an infection has reached a point where there’s damage to the teat, it might have to be surgically removed, but that’s only in rare cases, thank goodness.
If you continu