Umbilical health: A hidden challenge

By Dr. Dave Renaud, ACER Consulting Ltd.

Umbilical infections can be a costly and common disease in young calves. Several recent studies in both Canada and the United States have found that between 19 to 27 per cent of calves can be affected with an enlarged or abnormal umbilicus.

What are the consequences of an umbilical infection?

Calf with a dry, healed navel

Umbilical infections can cause a variety of short- and long-term consequences for heifer calves. They also result in increased costs of treatment related to labour and drug expenses. Navel infections have also been associated with an increased risk of umbilical hernias, other calf diseases and mortality, along with reduced growth rates and decreased survival in the herd. For male dairy calves, the consequences are similar, where calves arriving at a veal facility with an umbilical infection are much more likely to die and have a reduced weight. It was estimated based on these consequences that it would cost approximately $40 per calf with an umbilical infection in treatment costs and production losses. 

Why do umbilical infections occur?

The umbilical cord has blood flow directed to it during pregnancy, as it is responsible for the in-flow and out-flow of nutrients and waste products to the fetus. During birth, the umbilical cord will rupture, leaving the end of the cord open to contamination by bacteria. Normally, if the umbilical cord does not become infected, the cord will dry and the umbilical structures inside the abdomen will shrink. However, when the umbilicus becomes contaminated, the cord provides a pathway for bacteria into the body to cause an infection, not only at the umbilical cord but also the liver, kidney, and other organs that are connected to this structure. Bacteria can enter the bloodstream (septicemia) through this pathway and cause an infection in the joints resulting in pain and further health complications.

Identifying umbilical infections

Recently, several studies have shown that despite a high prevalence of umbilical infections, very few are treated, suggesting there could be underdiagnosis of this condition. To identify umbilical infections, it is necessary to feel the umbilicus to evaluate its size, and the presence of pain, heat, or discharge. Specifically, if the umbilicus is more than 1.3 cm in diameter or is hot, painful (calf flinches when it is touched), and there’s pus or foul-smelling discharge, the calf has an umbilical infection. Work with your veterinarian to determine the most appropriate treatments to address this condition.  

It is also important to note that in the updated transportation regulations, male dairy calves need to have a dry and healed umbilical cord in order to be transported. Therefore, calves with an unhealed, enlarged, or infected umbilical cord cannot be transported.

Preventing umbilical infections

To prevent umbilical infections, the focus should be placed on minimizing contact between the umbilical cord and bacteria. At calving, the umbilical cord is most susceptible to bacterial contamination so ensuring that the calving area is as clean as possible and free of manure is critical. In addition, the area that calves are moved to after calving should also be clean, dry, and free of manure.

Another important area to consider is colostrum management, as calves with failed transfer of passive immunity have a much greater risk of developing an umbilical infection. To maximize transfer of immunoglobulins, calves need to be provided with an ample quantity of colostrum (three to four litres at first feeding), that is of good quality (greater than 50 g/L IgG or greater than 22 per cent on a Brix refractometer, which can be used to measure colostrum quality), clean (low bacterial contamination), and fed promptly after birth (ideally within four hours).

Beyond ensuring excellent colostrum management and cleanliness in the calving and housing area, navel dipping with iodine or chlorhexidine is often a preventative measure for umbilical infections. There is variable evidence to document the benefit of this practice. More work is needed to confirm whether this is useful and ensuring a clean environment with excellent colostrum management is best practice.  

Take home messages

Umbilical infections occur commonly in calves and have both short- and long-term consequences. To identify them, it is necessary to feel the umbilicus to evaluate size, heat, pain, and discharge. Because of the potential consequences, prevention is critical, which starts immediately after calving. Ensuring passive transfer of immunity and maintaining clean calving and calf housing areas is critical. Work with your veterinarian to develop a plan to manage umbilical infections on your farm.

This project was funded by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a five-year federal-provincial-territorial initiative.