Preventing Navel-ill and Umbilical Hernias in Calves

 In Advice, Health

Navel ill is caused by the infection of a calves’ umbilical cord after birth. Navel-ill must be treated as quickly as possible, otherwise it can lead to joint-ill: inflammation and/or arthritis of the calf’s joints[1] (this is because the most common site for bacteria to settle are the joints, and thus navel-ill is also called joint ill[2]). Navel ill can also lead to scours, pneumonia, abscesses, death (if bacteria settle in the heart or brain), liver abscesses (that may only be noticed later in life) and, most commonly, umbilical hernias.

When a calf is born, the blood vessels that make up the majority of the umbilical cord stay as hollow tubes which should shrink until only tiny pieces remain inside the abdomen. However, should bacteria be allowed to enter through these tubes, the remnants become infected, which can enlarge the navel cord and prevent the closure of the abdomen[3]. If the opening in the abdomen is large enough, the calf’s intestines may poke out through the defect , which is what causes an umbilical hernia. These are the most common birth defects in calves[4].

If a calf has a simple hernia, it can usually just be pushed back into the abdomen. However, infected hernias may cause calves to become very sick. You might notice frequent, short urination and urination through the umbilicus.

Infected hernias can be repaired by a veterinary surgeon. Generally the umbilicus and all associated structures as well as infected tissue will be removed. If the infection has reached the bladder, a portion of the bladder wall might be removed as well. Any large abscesses will need to be drained before surgery. A long course of antibiotics may be administered for extensive infections.

However, rather than having to reach the treatment stage, it is better to prevent navel ill or hernias before they occur. Prevention is down to good calf management and knowledge of how to handle new-born calves:

  1. Ensure that the calving area on your farm is clean and dry, free of manure and urine.
  2. Disinfect the navel (where the umbilical cord was attached) on day one and day 2 after birth using tincture of iodine – a solution of at least 7% iodine and alcohol. The alcohol will assist in drying out the navel and the iodine in killing any bacteria present. If any cords are enlarged you may want to dip them for a few more days in a row.
  3. Make sure your calves receive correct volumes of colostrum immediately after birth and in the first few days following the birth. This will help them to develop immunity quickly and help to protect them from infections in the navel.
  4. Ensure that calves are being kept in a clean environment from birth: bedding should always be clean and dry.
  5. Make sure you have good calf-rearers who know how to prevent hernias and how to pick up on and treat any signs of navel ill. Calf-rearers should be checking the navel of calves every day for the first week or two after birth. The navel can be felt gently for any pain, heat or swelling that indicates an infection. You should not notice any draining or foul smell from the navel and gentle pressing of the navel should not cause the calf any pain. The navel is dry when the full length of the umbilical cord is dry, inflexible and shrivelled[5].

[1]Disease prevention in calves, Rearing Young Stock on Tropical Dairy Farms in Asia – John Moran, CSIRO publishing.

[2]Joint ill (Navel ill), The Cattle Site.com

[3]Preventing navel infections in new-born calves. Calfcare.com

[4]Umbilical Masses/Hernias in calves. American College of Veterinary Surgeons.

[5]Drying times of umbilical cords of dairy calves, Australian Veterinary Journal.

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