January 22, 2019

Published in Progressive Dairyman Canada, 2018

Recent research done at the University of Guelph identified over 26 percent of male calves had a significantly enlarged navel with heat, pain, moisture or malodorous discharge when examined at arrival to a veal facility. Similar levels of navel infections have also been found in female calves, with 27 percent of calves being affected in a recent study completed at Cornell University. Despite such a large number of calves being affected, there are many questions surrounding the best measures to identify, treat and prevent this disease.

What we know

A significant amount of blood flows to the umbilical cord following birth, providing an easy inlet for bacteria to enter the body. Bacteria can cause local infection and inflammation in the umbilical stock but can also spread from the navel to other parts of the body (i.e., joints, lungs, kidneys and other organs) via the blood stream. Be it male or female, this increases the calf’s risk of dying and can reduce an affected calf’s growth rate by up to 100 grams per day. Specific risk factors associated with a greater risk of navel infections include calves born to second-lactation-or-greater cows, calves that are heavier at birth and calves with a short umbilical cord at birth. When a calf with one of these factors is identified, they should be monitored closely to ensure, if they develop a navel infection, an intervention is applied early. There are some critical preventative measures that can be done to prevent navel infections. Having a clean maternity pen area, decreasing the amount of time newborn calves spend in the maternity pen, having excellent colostrum management and housing calves on clean and dry bedding have been shown to be good preventative practices to minimize navel infections. In terms of navel dipping, it has been shown 7 percent iodine tincture has a similar effect in preventing navel infections to 2 percent chlorhexidine solution when applied in the first two hours following calving. However, there is little else known about this commonly conducted procedure.

What we don’t know

Despite nearly 40 percent of producers reporting navel dip was always applied on calves in a recent survey conducted in Canada, little is known about the effectiveness of navel dipping. There has not been a single study concurrently evaluating the use of navel dip compared to no navel dip. We also don’t know how often the dip should be applied or best application method to use. It is also interesting to note two studies conducted in Canada found an association between navel dipping and an increased risk of respiratory disease. From these studies, it is unclear whether this association could be from the use of contaminated solutions introducing pathogens or that farms with high levels of disease are more likely to navel dip, but they suggest there could be some risk associated with performing this practice.

Check your calves for navel infections

Navel infections are often underdiagnosed in pre-weaned calves. Assessing the calf visually will not identify calves with navel infections, and they need to be felt to confirm their presence. To perform a clinical examination of the navel, it is important to feel for size (greater than 20 millimetres in diameter), heat, pain and the presence of pus or malodorous discharge at the umbilical stalk. There is good agreement between clinical and ultrasound examination of the navel, demonstrating feeling the navel is an effective method for the diagnosis of navel infections. Clinical exams of the navel should be done in the first three weeks of life, which is the period of greatest risk for the development of navel infections. A standardized and routine clinical exam will lead to early identification and treatment, which will minimize the consequences associated with having a navel infection. Navel infections remain a significant challenge in dairy calves. It is important to identify affected calves to reduce the short- and long-term consequences associated with this disease. To prevent navel infections, a focus should be placed on the management of calves immediately following calving, ensuring calves are in clean bedding and fed good-quality colostrum quickly. Work with your veterinarian to create tailored preventative and treatment strategy to reduce the impact of this disease on your farm.

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