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Bovine Cystitis and Pyelonephritis

(Contagious Bovine Pyelonephritis)


Peter D. Constable

, BVSc (Hons), MS, PhD, DACVIM, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Reviewed/Revised Mar 2022 | Modified Oct 2022
Topic Resources

Bovine cystitis is a disease of cattle characterized by ascending bacterial infection and inflammation of the urinary tract, with clinical signs including pyuria, hematuria, and stranguria. Some infected animals show signs including decreased appetite and abdominal pain. Treatment is a prolonged course of targeted antimicrobials guided by the results of urine culture and susceptibility testing.

Bovine cystitis is an inflammation of the urinary bladder of cattle that may ascend the ureters to cause infection of the kidneys (pyelonephritis). A similar condition is seen less commonly in sheep. The condition is sporadic and worldwide in distribution. Cystitis and pyelonephritis are most often seen after parturition (in one study, the average number of days to onset after parturition was 83), with multiparous cows being at highest risk. In locations where the disease has been studied, the prevalence is low (< 1%–2%). Cystitis and pyelonephritis are rare in male cattle.

Etiology and Pathogenesis of Bovine Cystitis and Pyelonephritis

Formerly, the most common causative agents of bovine cystitis and pyelonephritis were the Corynebacterium renale group of bacteria, including C renale (Type I), C pilosum (Type II), and C cystitidis (Type III), as well as Escherichia coli; however, E coli, Staphylococcus spp, Proteus spp, Streptococcus spp, and Trueperella (formerly Arcanobacterium or Corynebacterium) pyogenes are now the bacteria most frequently isolated from cows with pyelonephritis. Other opportunistic and environmental bacteria may be involved as well.

The most common causative bacteria are ubiquitous in the environment and are common inhabitants of the vagina and prepuce. Pyelonephritis develops from an ascending infection from the bladder. Cystitis may be present without involving the ureters or ascending to the kidney until some event occurs that compromises the defense mechanism of the ureteral mucosa. The organisms attack or colonize the mucosal lining of the bladder and ureters, usually after some traumatic insult (such as parturition or abnormal deformity of the vaginal tract). The stresses of parturition, peak lactation, and a high-protein diet (which increases the pH of the urine and is therefore conducive to colonization of the urinary tract by Corynebacterium spp) are all contributing factors. Catheterization of the bladder with nonsterile catheters may facilitate transmission of Corynebacterium spp from cow to cow. The decrease in the frequency of urinary catheterization has been associated with a decreased prevalence of Corynebacterium spp as a cause of pyelonephritis.

Clinical Findings and Lesions of Bovine Cystitis and Pyelonephritis

The first clinical sign observed in a case of bovine cystitis or pyelonephritis may be the passage of blood-stained urine in an otherwise healthy cow. As the infection proceeds up the ureters, causing inflammation and subsequent involvement of the kidney, the animal exhibits discomfort manifest by frequent attempts to urinate, anorexia, a slight fever, loss of production, colic with restlessness, tail switching, polyuria, hematuria, or pyuria. In chronic cases, the animal may show colic, diarrhea, polyuria, polydipsia, stranguria, and anemia. As the disease progresses, the bladder becomes thickened and inflamed. The ureters become thickened and dilated with a purulent exudate. The involved kidneys develop multiple small abscesses on the surface that may extend into the cortex and medulla.

Diagnosis of Bovine Cystitis and Pyelonephritis in Cattle

  • Presence of blood, protein, and leukocytes in a free-catch urine sample

  • Catheterization of the bladder, and culture and susceptibility testing of bacterial isolates

Diagnosis of bovine cystitis and pyelonephritis is based on clinical signs; hematuria; a history of recent parturition; palpation of the left kidney for enlargement, loss of lobulation, and pain; ultrasonographic inspection of the kidneys, ureters, and bladder; endoscopic inspection of the bladder for detection of cystitis; microscopic examination of the urine for WBCs and bacteria; dipstick screening for proteinuria and hematuria; and quantitative urine culture to identify the organism. The right kidney cannot be palpated per rectum, except for the caudal pole in Jersey cows and heifers. In early acute cases of pyelonephritis, enlarged ureters and involvement of the kidney may not be detectable on palpation per rectum. Typically, only one kidney is affected.

Treatment of Bovine Cystitis and Pyelonephritis

  • Prolonged antimicrobial treatment; consider changing urine pH via diet

  • Unilateral nephrectomy in nonresponsive cases that involve only one kidney

Early diagnosis and prompt, sustained treatment are needed for a successful recovery from bovine cystitis and pyelonephritis. A catheterized urine sample should be taken for culture and antimicrobial susceptibility testing.

The treatment of choice for pyelonephritis caused by Corynebacterium spp is procaine penicillin (22,000 IU/kg, IM, every 12 hours, or 44,000 IU/kg, IM, every 24 hours; SC discouraged) or trimethoprim-sulfadoxine (16 mg combined/kg, IM, every 12 hours) for 3–4 weeks. The dosage, frequency, and length of administration for both of these drugs is extra-label, and adequate precautions must be taken to prevent antimicrobial residues from entering the human food supply. E coli infections require an antimicrobial. Therefore, an antimicrobial susceptibility test can also be useful for determining antimicrobial treatment. Ceftiofur (1.1–2.2 mg/kg, IM or SC, every 24 hours for 2–3 weeks) or gentamicin (5–6 mg/kg, IM, every 24 hours for 5–7 days) has been used successfully in some cases. Because of the extremely long tissue-depletion time, parenteral administration of aminoglycosides is rarely indicated in food-producing animals.

Manipulation of urine pH may theoretically be of value because E coli grow best in acidic urine (pH < 7), whereas Corynebacterium spp grow best in alkaline urine (pH >7). Nonazotemic animals with pyelonephritis confined to one kidney may benefit from unilateral nephrectomy.

Even though the organisms are ubiquitous in the environment, affected animals should be isolated from the herd to restrict buildup of organisms. Because of suspicion that bulls may act as mechanical vectors of Corynebacterium spp, artificial insemination in herds with multiple animals affected may be considered.

Key Points

  • Cystitis and pyelonephritis occur most commonly after parturition in cattle.

  • Hematuria, pyuria, and stranguria are common presenting clinical signs.

  • Prolonged treatment (2–4 weeks) with administration of appropriate antimicrobials is usually successful in acute cases.

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