If you have a problem with swollen navels...

Paul Redmond, MVB, MRCVS, Cert DHH, Duntahane Veterinary Clinic, Fermoy, member practice of Prime Health Vets

Just back from Gerry’s.

He had a lovely sized calf, that was not quite right.

Gerry prides himself in his stock, and likes them all to be in top form.

This calf had a slight temperature, sounded wheezy in the lungs, and was not inclined to suck as well as he should.

He also had a thickened navel. “The root of all evils” I call it. The navel is the gateway from the calf to the cow when the calf is in the womb. The calf gets blood, and thereby nutrients and oxygen, from its mother, through the navel.

This then supplies all parts of the foetus, and once the oxygen and nutrients are extracted by the calf, the blood is returned via the navel to the dam, to be replenished.

After birth, if the navel gets infected, the infection can travel to any part of the calf’s body via the same blood vessels.

Where does the blood stream of the calf bring this infection?

It can bring it to the lungs, where it will cause pneumonia. If it goes to the bowel area, it can lead to diarrhoea. It might lead to a joint infection, which we either call joint ill or arthritis.

When it reaches the brain, we get meningitis. Sometimes, there might be an infection of the ear tips, or the tail, with a dry gangrene.

There are lots of possibilities, once infective bacteria leave the swollen navel and travel in the blood stream.

When I go to see a sick calf, one of the first things that I check is the navel. I might have been called to a calf with pneumonia or scour etc, but I always check the navel.

So what are the causes of this swollen navel? When the calf is born, it comes into a possibly dirty environment in the calving pen. The dirtier the pen is, the higher the chance of this calf getting a swollen navel.

I was reading an article by John Mee of Teagasc, Moorepark recently about navel care after calving, and he made a number of interesting comments. Apparently, after an assisted calving, our tendency is to break the cord immediately, but research shows that this affects the efficiency of the calf’s breathing afterwards.

We should let it break naturally.

To reduce the chances of the navel getting contaminated, we can improve the hygiene in the calving pen, remove the calf immediately, give the calf enough good quality colostrum, and tend to the navel.

The most common way of tending to the navel is to spray it with an iodine spray.

Research has shown that, in humans, iodine on the navel can lead to thyroid problems.

Apart from that, it has also been shown that a lot of iodine preparations are too strong, and they burn the tissues.

When this happens, the burnt tissue becomes a happy hunting ground for bacteria, and the tissue becomes infected.

The other most common dip or spray contains chlorhexidine.

This has activity against a wide spectrum of microbes.

It has a long lasting effect, and most importantly, it is very effective in the presence of blood and other organic matter.

My own preference is for a chlorhexidine-based spray, as I see too many cases of swollen navels where iodine sprays have been used.

Chlorhexidine can also be made up freshly as a dip, provided you use a new plastic disposable cup for each calf.

If you have a problem with swollen navels, you need to improve calving pen hygiene, snatch calves, hand-feed colostrum, and repeatedly spray the navels with chlorhexidine.

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