Animal Health Matters: The amazing navel – and what can go wrong with it

Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum
Russ Daly

A calf’s navel is a classic before-and-after story.

Technically called the umbilicus, it marks the former site of the umbilical cord. In the womb, it’s absolutely critical to survival. After birth – if all goes as it should -- it’s completely irrelevant.

Four vital structures pass through the umbilical cord while the calf is still (literally) attached to its mother. Two arteries provide fresh blood from the mother, a vein carries “used” blood from the fetus and a connection called the urachus carries waste out of the fetal bladder.

These structures go through an amazingly rapid transformation at birth. One second the calf’s very survival depends on these vessels. The next second these connections are rendered unnecessary as the calf becomes dependent on its own anatomy and physiology. Once the umbilical cord breaks, these four structures seal up within the navel to become insignificant ligaments inside the calf’s belly.

This is where the story ends for most calves. But sometimes that freshly broken connection becomes an effective entryway for bacteria, resulting in navel infections.

Navel infections typically show up within days of birth, sometimes within 24 hours. The area will become swollen, painful and warm to the touch. The calf might act slow and droopy and often sports a fever.

Most of these navel infections stay localized. Sometimes, however, the infection gains access to the calf’s bloodstream. The result of this is septicemia, a serious whole-body bacterial infection that can settle into other parts of the body, such as the joints, eyeballs or the brain. When these conditions pop up in young calves, their origins are usually traceable back to the navel.

Early identification and treatment are keys to an effective recovery. Antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications are often effective and should be implemented with veterinary input.

Prevention is always better than treatment, of course. These infections come from bacteria common to animal environments. Sloppy, muddy, manure-filled calving areas provide plenty of opportunities for germs to enter the still-wet navel and start an infection. Keeping calving areas as clean and dry as possible is important for preventing navel infections. Additionally, timely consumption of high-quality colostrum is important for heading off infections like this.

Applying antiseptics directly to the navel is another long-recognized way to reduce bacterial load. Views on the best products for “dipping” or spraying navels have gone through several cycles through my years of veterinary practice. For a while, strong iodine was considered the only thing worthy of use, then it was considered by some to be too harsh. Other products such as chlorhexidine have been used as well, potentially helping to dry out the navel while killing bacteria. The timing of use is likely of much more importance than the actual product used. Nothing will work well after a calf’s navel has been contaminated, so applying these products as soon as possible after birth is critical.

Other weird things occur in this part of the calf’s anatomy, popping up later in life and usually consequences of earlier infections. Acute navel infections can become walled off from the outside and become a chronic abscess. Abscesses need to be differentiated from the other cause of navel swelling – a hernia. This is where a hole in the body wall has developed at the navel – usually because of an infection that lingered too long. Neither of these conditions pose immediate harm to the animal, but they should be dealt with. Abscesses can be lanced and drained, while hernias might need to be surgically repaired, although smaller ones often seem to resolve on their own over time.

More uncommon is when all the parts of the umbilicus seal up after birth except the urachus, that connection between the calf’s bladder and the mother. This shows up as a constant leakage of urine out of the navel and necessitates veterinary care in order to get it to seal up.

As is the case with so many young-calf problems, husbandry basics such as providing a clean environment and good colostrum can help head off navel problems. Work with your veterinarian for treatment and prevention advice should you encounter these “belly button” issues in your calves.

Russ Daly is the South Dakota Extension veterinarian at South Dakota State University.  He can be reached via e-mail at russell.daly@sdstate.edu or at 605-688-5171.