One of my favorite calves of the season had what looked like a chunk of cauliflower growing in her ear. The young heifer did not seem to be bothered by it. But I sure was.
After doing some research, the unsightly mass was diagnosed as cattle warts — a skin growth caused by a virus that can be transmitted. Older cattle typically have an immunity to warts. There are some precautions to take, however, when wet conditions offer breeding grounds for viruses, and these unwelcomed skin growths appear with a new crop of calves.
What are cattle warts? Cattle warts are masses of tissue that appear most often in young cattle. Sometimes resembling a cluster of cauliflower, the warts are often found on ears and other places on the head, as well as the neck and shoulders. The time between exposure to the virus and the first awareness of a mass on a calf can be as long as two months. However, once noted, the masses tend to grow rapidly.
Since the warts are caused by the papillomavirus, they can be contagious to any bovine that has not built up immunity to the virus. Typically, adult cattle have immunity; even exposed, they won’t develop the unsightly bumps. Young cattle are at risk, though, especially when conditions encourage the spread of the virus.
Without immunity, young calves can have the virus crop up on the skin where the surface has been broken, often from an ear tag puncture or scrape. The virus can be spread through tagging tools, as well as tattooing needles, and it can even remain active on water trough areas and feed bunks. Moist, wet conditions promote the virus — something Ohio has seen plenty of this season.
How to prevent spreading of warts. So, what to do? Upon the first notice of cattle warts in a young calf, it is recommended to isolate the calf, as this containment could prevent the spread of the virus. However, exposure to the virus and sight of the lesion can be months apart, and the calf might have already infected other animals during the incubation period. Still, once warts are noted on a calf, isolation is recommended. Cow-calf pairs can remain intact, as the cow typically has immunity, and the warts are no threat to her skin. On rare occasions, a cow can have warts near the udder, and calves can have warts affecting the mouth and nose. For these situations, consult a veterinarian.
Treatment. Although the wart masses are downright ugly, the best news about cattle warts is that they tend to disappear as quickly as they arrived. Therefore, treatment is often simple: Leave the darn thing alone. There is no pain associated with the mass for the calf.
Still, if needed, the owner of the calf can have the wart removed by a veterinarian. Also, as the wart mass runs its cycle, the owner might notice the mass looks like it is loosening away from the surface of the skin. Simply tugging or twisting of the mass can encourage the wart mass to disconnect from the skin. Having tried this myself, I hardly recommend it — since most calves do not appreciate their ears being yanked upon. In the case of my calf, the mass shrunk and fell off on its own, but the time passed was several months.
Further suggestions. While the mass is typically benign, there are a few suggestions besides the recommended calf isolation.
For one, do not tug or twist on the wart when it is newly formed. The action could cause a tearing of the skin and prompt the calf to bleed, and potentially spreading the virus to other areas where the skin might be compromised. It is best to leave any tugging or twisting to the loosened, later life cycle of the wart.
Also, there are vaccines available. They do not always work due to the long incubation period, however, where calf exposure has already occurred, and no immunity has been built up. However, an autogenous vaccine created within the calf’s own body is more effective. This vaccine stimulates the body to defend itself against the virus and might even promote a shortened life cycle of cattle warts.
Finally, while iodine is used for ringworm, this is not to be used on cattle warts. Since the iodine can burn, the skin might be further compromised by this sensation, resulting in more lesions.ght have already infected other animals during the incubation period.
Tomko is a professor and farmer who writes from Rittman, Ohio.