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Veterinarian View | April 2023

Navel Infection in Newborn Calves

contributed article by Dr. Vince Collison, Collison Embryo and Veterinary Services,

Rockwell City, Iowa

Calving season is in full swing and there are always plenty of challenges that go with it. One of the bigger issues we have seen this spring relates to navel infections in calves. Conditions in the Midwest have been fairly wet and overcast resulting in a lot of mud early on in February. This has made it hard to keep calving areas clean and dry resulting in perfect conditions for navel infections.

Navel infection is a term that is usually used for calves with swollen navels, but it actually can result in a variety of conditions. The following are some of the things to look for.

A Swollen Navel

This is a very common symptom resulting from localized infection at the site of the navel. Most of these are hard and can cause pain and fever in the calf. Antibiotics for 5 to 7 days are necessary to get this under control. The most common method of prevention is to dip or spray the newborn’s navel with iodine.

Listless Calf 2-5 Days After Birth (calf won’t nurse)

This is a very common symptom that we see and is due to a septicemia that originates from the open navel. Septicemia is a term for blood infection and is caused by bacteria circulating in the blood throughout the calf’s body.

A newborn’s navel is an open pathway for bacteria to enter the body. Most of the bacteria are from manure in the environment and result in systemic E. coli or other types of coliform bacteria. Many of these septic calves will not be running a fever.

In addition to dipping the navel in iodine it is very important to make sure the newborn calf is nursing enough to get adequate levels of colostrum in their system. Antibodies from the colostrum play a major role in helping calves fight off this systemic infection at birth. Treatment for this requires aggressive antibiotics and bovine serum with antibodies for various calf infections is also very helpful. Also, treatment with some type of flunixin product will help with the endotoxins in their system.

Joint Infections

These are one of the classic symptoms seen with navel infection. This can be seen in a little older calves, but probably originated from bacteria entering through the navel. Once the bacteria enter the body through the navel it will settle from the blood into the joints. Joints are predisposed to this type of infection because the blood vessels at the joint cartilage are shaped in a U pattern. As the blood circulates toward the cartilage and is directed back sharply, the bacteria will settle out from the blood and accumulate in the joint.

These joint infections are hard to treat and require early intervention for the best results. Aggressive antibiotic therapy combined with bovine serum is the standard treatment. Joint infections are very hard to treat and the longer they go before getting treatment, the poorer the prognosis for recovery. Even with treatment, there is often some damage to the joint which can take extended time to heal and may never return to normal. Many of these probably also start because of inadequate colostrum intake.

Pneumonia and Diarrhea

While probably not caused from the navel infection, it is common to see these conditions concurrently. Septicemia from navel infection will weaken the immune system and make calves more prone to pneumonia and diarrhea. Plus, conditions that make calves susceptible to navel infection also make them prone to pneumonia and diarrhea.

Infection Prevention

Prevention of navel infection starts with sanitation. Try to keep calving areas clean and bedded with dry straw or cornstalks. When bedding gets wet it is a nidus for infection. Wood shavings or wood chips are often used for bedding, but I would avoid using them for newborn calving pens. Wood shavings often harbor a bacteria called Klebsiella. It is a coliform-bacteria and is commonly associated with navel infection and septicemia when wood chips are used.

When weather conditions are wet it is often hard to keep pens dry enough and a prophylactic antibiotic at birth might need to be considered to help prevent infections. Iodine to the navel as mentioned before is important and get pairs out of confined areas as much as possible. If you can’t get pairs out of confined areas, try to have a dry area where only calves can go. If you are seeing some of these problems, work with your herd veterinarian to form a plan for treatment and prevention.

Dr. Vince Collison is co-owner of Collison Embryo and Veterinary Services PAC

in Rockwell City, Iowa.

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