Navel Infection

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The umbilical remnant is one of the most common sources of infection for neonatal calves. Calves les than 1 week of age are most commonly afflicted by infections of the umbilicus or navel because the umbilical stump usually takes 7-10mdays to dry up. Navel infection can lead to sepsis (bacteria within the bloodstream) and death. The most common bacterial organisms to cause sepsis in neonates are gram-negative bacteria. Inappropriate umbilical disinfection can predispose a neonate to develop navel infection.


Navel infections develop when the umbilicus becomes contaminated with bacteria. The umbilicus provides bacteria with an easy route of entry to the neonatal calf’s bloodstream and body. Once bacteria colonize within the umbilicus, they can easily spread up to the navel and into the circulation.
Factors that predispose a calf to developing navel infection include an umbilical cord the breaks off or is cut at a level too close to the body wall (the umbilical stump should be about 6 inches long), poor navel hygiene practices (like not dipping the navel with a disinfectant for a few days after birth), and unfavorable environmental conditions such as birth in a dirty calving area, inadequate colostrum, or having the umbilical stump sucked on by other calves.
If bacteria are able to enter the blood stream, the condition is termed sepsis. Sepsis can lead to bacterial infection in distant sites in the calf’s body as the bacteria are carried around within the circulating blood. Sepsis can also lead to severe complication such as liver abscesses, shock and death.


One of the most obvious signs of a navel infection is a swollen, painful area around the umbilicus. This swelling is due to infection and if not treated, can result in a fever and possibly the formation of a puss-filed abscess at the site.
If a navel infection persists for a long time and becomes quite sever, it can lead to sepsis. Signs of sepsis in a neonate include: Lethargy, decreased nursing and suckle reflex, increased heart rate with bounding pulses, GI upset, reddened mucous membranes, and labored breathing.
If the infection spreads from the navel to the bloodstream (sepsis), the bacteria can travel to distant areas of the body and create infections elsewhere. The most common sites to which bacteria spread are the joints. This leads to swollen, painful joints as the bacteria take hold and create inflammation. It is also possible for the bacteria to spread to other areas including the brain, heart and liver.


Diagnosis of navel infections can often be made based on a physical examination. Finding a swollen, painful navel in a neonatal calf along with other signs such as those mentioned above strongly suggests navel infection. It is important to differentiate a navel infection from an umbilical hernia.


The best prevention measures relate to hygiene. It is critical that calves are born in clean, dry pens to and to limit the amount of contamination in the calving area. It is also important to apply disinfectant to the umbilical cord after parturition. After the cord is broken, 2% iodine or chlorhexidine solution should be applied to the stump twice daily until the remaining umbilicus is dry. This procedure will help prevent infection of the navel after birth. Calves should not be moved to wet, or dirty areas until after the umbilicus has dried completely. Finally, it is important that calves receive an adequate amount of high quality colostrum in a timely manner. This will help them develop strong immune systems and fight off infections better.


Early treatment of navel infections is an important factor in determining the success of therapy. Animals diagnosed with navel infections should be housed separately and given antibiotics, fluid therapy, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and quality nursing care.

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