Prevent Navel Infections in Newborn Calves

Posted on April 28, 2015 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
The umbilical cord of a newborn calf is the residual pipeline from the mother’s blood to the calf.  The unborn calf uses the mother’s circulation for nourishment and her urinary system to remove the waste it produces.  During birth, the cord is stretched until it breaks.  At that point, the calf is cut off from the maternal blood supply and is truly “on its own.”

Once the calf is born, the external part of the umbilical cord begins to shrink and dry up.  Eventually, it falls off, leaving a modified scar we call the navel.  This natural process works especially well when calves are born in a clean, dry birthing area.

When a calf is born in an area that is not clean and dry, the cord can easily become exposed to pathogenic bacteria.  Any amount of manure, dirt or urine that gets on a newly broken cord can make its way into the calf’s body, leading to an infected cord and potentially very serious problems.

The infection can follow the same blood vessels used by the mother’s blood prior to birth.  It’s a direct path into the bloodstream of the newborn calf – allowing bacteria access to the blood and inner tissues.  This is a dangerous condition in a neonatal animal whose natural defenses are not yet fully developed.

These pathogens can accumulate in body areas such as the joints, kidneys, liver and lungs.  Calves can harbor these pathogens for many days and weeks.  In addition, the calf can develop a high fever as bacteria and the toxins they produce flow through the bloodstream.  Abscesses and septicemia can result.

The first step to prevent these infections is to make every effort to keep the neonatal umbilical cord free of contamination.  This is best accomplished with clean, dry bedding in the birthing pen.

The next best thing is to promptly dip the external part of the remaining cord in a 7-percent tincture iodine solution.  Dipping the cord in iodine solution will help destroy any pathogens before they can penetrate and infect the tissues.  In addition, the solution (which contains alcohol) will also help to dry up the cord.

A final benefit of using iodine is the visible orange stain that will tell you this process has been completed.  The color is very obvious and an easy way to determine if full soaking of the cord is occurring or if just part of the cord is actually being exposed to iodine.

Management action plan
If umbilical cord infections are an issue on your calf operation, you may need to make some management changes to prevent this in the future.  These include:

  • Maintain a clean and dry maternity area.
  • Dip the navel at birth with a 7-percent tincture iodine solution.  Be sure to actually dip the navel to make sure the entire cord is submerged in the solution.  A simple strategy is to use small disposable cups filled with iodine and maintain five seconds of contact time between the cup and the calf’s body.
  • Re-dip the navel at 24 hours of age.   Once again, make sure the entire cord is actually dipped.  Spraying does not give consistent coverage to the entire cord.
  • Palpate (physically feel and massage) the cord at three to five days of age.  The cord should not be any bigger in diameter than your small finger.  It should also be soft and pliable.  If it is hard, enlarged or causes discomfort to the calf when gently squeezed, this may indicate an infection.
  • Palpate the cord in any calf showing signs of sickness that is less than two weeks of age.
  • Follow your veterinarian’s advice to be sure an appropriate antibiotic is used at the correct dosage for treating an umbilical cord infection.

These points are just the beginning steps to controlling umbilical cord problems in your calves.  It’s important to respond quickly to the problem when you see it.  Left untreated or poorly treated, navel infections in calves will lead to lameness, poor weight gain, and possibly death later in life.

Quick and correct action to minimize umbilical cord infections when first seen will lead to healthier, better growing animals throughout their lives.

This article was first shared by Milk Products, LLC in the FrontLine® newsletter.

Category: Animal health
Starting Strong - Calf Care