The purpose of this study was to improve our knowledge concerning the epidemiology and strain diversity of Staphylococcus epidermidis isolated from bovine milk in commercial dairy herds. A total of 341 S. epidermidis isolates obtained from cows' milk (317), farmers (17) and patients (7) were characterized. Of these 105 isolates were from cows' milk in two farms, where also 17 isolates were sampled from farmers. The remaining 212 isolates from cows' milk were from 170 farms. All isolates were examined by antimicrobial susceptibility, whereas 202 were examined by pulsed-field gel electrophoresis (PFGE) and 122 by ribotyping. PFGE showed single patterns in the human strains with one exception; one strain was categorised as the same clone as four of the milk strains. PFGE divided 73 of the milk strains into 62 different patterns. The PFGE method had high discriminatory power and shows that many different S. epidermidis types exist in milk samples. Antibiotic resistance patterns matched the SmaI profiles closely in the two herds, but poorly in the routinely collected milk samples. Isolates from herd I showed one to five patterns, depending on the typing method used. Isolates from the milker's skin showed one pattern, which was identical to the most common pattern found in the milk isolates. Isolates from herd 2 showed three to four patterns, two of these being identical to skin isolates from the milker. As dairy cows are not a natural host for S. epidermidis the results suggest a human source of these udder infections. (c) 2006 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.