We studied the mammary immune response to different mammary pathogenic Escherichia coli (MPEC) strains in cows, hypothesising that the dynamics of response would differ. E. coli is a major aetiologic agent of acute clinical bovine mastitis of various degrees of severity with specific strains being associated with persistent infections. We compared challenge with three distinct pathogenic MPEC strains (VL2874, VL2732 and P4), isolated from different forms of mastitis (per-acute, persistent and acute, respectively). A secondary objective was to verify the lack of mammary pathogenicity of an environmental isolate (K71) that is used for comparison against MPEC in genomic and phenotypic studies. Twelve cows were challenged by intra-mammary infusion with one of the strains. Cellular and chemokine responses and bacterial culture follow-up were performed for 35 d. All cows challenged by any of the MPEC strains developed clinical mastitis. Differences were found in the intensity and duration of response, in somatic cell count, secreted cytokines (TNF-α, IL-6 and IL-17) and levels of milk leucocyte membrane Toll-like receptor 4 (TLR4). A sharp decrease of TLR4 on leucocytes was observed concomitantly to peak bacterial counts in milk. Intra-mammary infusion of strain K71 did not elicit inflammation and bacteria were not recovered from milk. Results suggest some differences in the mammary immune response to distinct MPEC strains that could be correlated to their previously observed pathogenic traits. This is also the first report of an E. coli strain that is non-pathogenic to the bovine mammary gland. © Proprietors of Journal of Dairy Research 2017.