Raw Milk, Benefits and Risks

 D. E. Larsen, DVM

I stopped in front of the house on North River Drive and double-checked the address on my sheet. This was the address, but there were only houses around, no sign of a place for a cow.

 Mary came out of the house as I checked my notes, I rolled down my window.

“Hi, Mary,” I said. “Where is the sick cow?”

“If you go down this driveway,” Mary said as she was pointing out the driveway to the cow. “The milking shed is on the left, just past the trees. There is a gate there, and the cow is in her stanchion. You go ahead, and I will be along shortly.”

The driveway was long, but after going about a quarter of a mile, I could see a pullout and the gate. I pulled over, making sure I was out of the way of any traffic. 

The cow was standing quietly. She was probably wondering why she was there, well before milking time.

I didn’t have any specific information other than the cow was sick. But I grabbed my things and squeezed through the gate.

The cow was content to stand as I started looking her over. She was a friendly little Jersey cow, my favorite breed. Of course, I was partial since I grew up on a Jersey dairy.

Exam-wise, nothing seemed to jump out at me. She was standing quietly and not eating, but other than that, her front half looked pretty good. I put my stethoscope on her abdomen and checked her gut sounds, and there was no abnormal ping on the left side. Her rumen motility was reduced, which would go along with her not eating.

I checked her temperature with a rectal thermometer, which was slightly elevated. I checked her udder, and there was no evidence of mastitis.

I pulled a plastic sleeve on my left arm and stepped behind her to do a rectal exam. After squirting some lube on the sleeve, I grabbed her tail with my right hand and started to insert my left hand into her rectum.

She humped up and started to pee. The urine hit the wood floor of the shed and splattered. Her urine was bright red. I immediately jumped back, trying to avoid the splatter.

“Lepto,” I said to myself. I recalled Doctor Craig’s story about when he and a partner had worked a herd, and they both contracted Lepto. Roy noticed blood in his urine in the morning, and he went to the doctor and started antibiotics. His partner waited a few days, and he ended up dying.

Mary came through the gate about that time. 

“Are you finding anything?” she asked.

“Bloody urine,” I said. “Have you noticed that before?”

“I thought it looked bad last night when I milked her,” Mary said. “But this morning, it was really red. That’s why I called. What causes that?”

“It could be several things, but Leptospirosis is highest on the list,” I said. “Are you using her milk in the house?”

“Yes, that is all we use,” Mary said. “You’re not going give me a lecture on the evils of raw milk, are you.”

“I grew up drinking raw milk,” I said. “But that was a different time and a different place. I wouldn’t drink it today or give it to my kids. But that is all beside the point. The point is that this cow likely has Lepto, and she could be passing that disease in her milk, and she is definitely passing it in her urine. In an open milking situation like this, it is possible to contaminate the milk with her urine. You should discard what milk you have in the house.”

“I don’t know why I should throw out good milk,” Mary said. 

“It is not perfectly good milk,” I said. “It could make your family very sick, and someone could die from drinking it.”

“We are fine,” Mary said. “Nobody is sick. Raw milk enhances our immune system.”

“You should at least pasteurize it. The county extension office could help you with information about that process,” I said. “Today, I am going to draw some blood from this cow to send to the lab. Then I will put her on a high dose of antibiotics for a week. You should discard her milk while she is on antibiotics and for seven days from the last dose. It would be okay to feed the milk to a calf, but you shouldn’t use it in the house.”

“Do you understand how much money you are asking me to dump out on the ground?” Mary asked. “I wouldn’t think a little antibiotic would hurt much. You say it is okay to feed a calf, which we don’t have now. That must mean that it won’t hurt the kids much, either.”

“Well, I can’t force you to do anything,” I said. “I will write down my recommendations and have you sign the note, and you can do what you want with the milk. I will have the county environmental health department contact you to see they can be of any help for you.”

“Okay, we have that resolved,” Mary said. “Do you think Betsy is going to be okay?”

“Is she bred?” I asked. “Lepto does cause abortion sometimes.”

“No, we were going to get a friend’s bull next week,” Mary said. “She should be coming into heat in a couple of weeks.”

“That will probably be okay,” I said. “But you should tell your friend. Cows will sometimes shed this bacteria for some time after treatment. As long as they have clean water and a dry pasture, there would be a major exposure. However, there is mention of rare venereal transmission of Lepto in cattle. I would guess if it is after the antibiotics are completed, the risk to the bull would be low.”

I secured Betsy’s head with my nose tongs and drew a tube of blood from her jugular vein. I also placed an official ear tag in her left ear. This wasn’t required, but with the reluctance of Mary to heed my advice on discarding her milk, I wanted an official identification on the cow.

I gave Betsy a large dose of Polyflex, a new ampicillin suspension formulated for livestock. I left the bottle with Mary with instructions for daily dosing.

“What happens with the blood?” Mary asked.

“I separate it and send the serum into the lab,” I said. “They will do titers on it. Lepto is one of those diseases that have many varieties. They are pretty similar, but each is a little different. If those titers are negative, then I can rethink my diagnosis.”

“You seem pretty sure of your diagnosis,” Mary said.

“Sure enough that I am going to use a lot of soap and water to scrub myself before I get back into the truck,” I said.


Betsy’s titer came back positive for Leptospira grippotyphosa. This was a relatively new strain for western Oregon. 

Betsy recovered uneventfully, and Mary’s family squeaked by without an illness. Although, I believe they were fortunate.

Photo by Luke Stackpoole on Unsplash.

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

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