The aim of this study was to retrospectively analyse the results of milk samples obtained from South African dairy herds during the period 1996 to April 2007 in order to identify possible trends in isolates of microorganisms and their pathogenicity under field conditions. Milk samples were obtained from 7 of the 9 provinces in South Africa where there are low numbers of dairy cows. Although there is scientific limitation to a country wide survey, such as the variation in herd size, management skills, parity, milk yield, milking frequency and other parameters, the size of this database helps to give a fair indication of general udder health in South Africa. Cytology and routine bacteriology were performed on 379 000 milk samples of lactating cows and bacteriology on 11 946 samples from non-lactating cows. According to the results obtained, mastitis did not decrease in South Africa over the test period. The prevalence of mastitis and teat canal infection was lowest in 2002. Mastitis and teat canal infection increased from 2002 to 2006 from 8.1 % and 24.1 % to 15.4 and 30.0 % respectively. The percentage of mastitogenic pathogens isolated from cows over these years also varied. Previously unknown or almost eradicated mastitogenic pathogens such as αβ haemolytic Staphylococcus aureus which is thought to be of human origin, Streptococcus agalactiae and Enterococcus canis were responsible for numerous mastitis outbreaks seen in the test samples. Coagulase-negative staphylococci were the most frequently isolated bacteria in milk samples from both lactating and dry cows, followed by Staphylococcus aureus and Streptococcus agalactiae. Although Staphylococcus aureus remained the principal mastitogenic pathogen in South Africa, owing to its chronic nature and resultant economic losses, most cases of mastitis were caused by coagulase-negative staphylococci. This finding increases the importance of coagulase-negative staphylococci (formerly described as a minor pathogen) significantly. Isolations of Streptococcus agalactiae peaked between 2000 and 2005 and decreased again by 2007. Coagulase-negative staphylococcal isolates increased from 2002 and were still on the increase in 2007. Streptococcus agalactiae, Streptococcus uberis and Enterococcus canis were isolated more frequently from milk samples of lactating cows compared with dry cows, while Enterococcus faecalis was isolated more frequently from dry cow samples.