The effects of 3 days of glucocorticoid administration on bovine blood neutrophil expression of L-selectin and CD18, and on the health status of mammary glands subclinically infected with Staphylococcus aureus were measured in 9 lactating Holsteins. The experiment was a 3 x 3 Latin square cross-over design, with 3 glucocorticoid treatments switched among groups of 3 cows/treatment during 3 periods. Treatments consisted of a vehicle (control, 10 ml of excipient/cow/d), cortisol (7.5, 15, and 7.5 mg/cow on days 1, 2, and 3, respectively), and dexamethasone (0.04 mg/kg of body weight/cow/d for total daily dosages that ranged from 21.6 to 33.2 mg). Blood samples for immunostaining and flow cytometric analysis of L-selectin and CD18 and leukograms, as well as foremilk samples for determination of S aureus shedding, somatic cell counts, protein and fat percentages, and daily milk yields were collected repeatedly before, during, and after treatment days. Dexamethasone caused a profound, acute, short-lived down-regulation of L-selectin on neutrophils, which correlated in time to leukocytosis, mature and immature neutrophilias, increased shedding of S aureus in infected glands, and onset of high percentages of fat and protein and decreased milk yields. Dexamethasone also caused profound but delayed down-regulation of neutrophil CD18, which reached nadir simultaneously with reappearance of L-selectin-bearing neutrophils, normalized blood neutrophil counts, markedly high foremilk somatic cell counts and protein percentage, decreased S aureus shedding in milk, and finally, expression of clinical mastitis in some infected quarters. Each of these variables had returned to control (vehicle) values by the ninth (and last) sample collection day. Although cortisol treatment also decreased expression of L-selectin and CD18 on neutrophils, dosages used in this study were not sufficient to alter the number of circulating cells or to convert subclinical mammary gland infections to clinical mastitis. These results suggest that mammary gland health status can be altered by sudden exposure of blood neutrophils to glucocorticoids, because these steroid hormones caused profound down-regulation of the adhesion molecules that direct neutrophil margination and migration through the vascular endothelium. The results also reinforce the potential disease risk of treating infected animals with potent synthetic glucocorticoids, such as dexamethasone.