The umbilical cord was once the lifeline for a new calf. Veins and arteries transported life sustaining energy and fluids to the calf from the mother's body, and waste was carried away. However, during the birthing process or shortly after, the cord is broken and soon, the calf must eat, drink, urinate and defecate for itself. As the cord is broken, the torn arteries pull back into the abdomen of the young calf and seal themselves off. In most normal births, there is seldom any bleeding at all from the broken navel cord. The veins close up, and for a short time, remain dangling from the calf's belly until the cord dries up and falls off.
What is Navel Ill?
For most healthy calves, the umbilical cord stays decently clean, shrivels up, and drops away within the first week or two of life. However, sometimes calves can get an infection of the navel stump. This illness is called navel ill. Navel ill can become a serious illness to the newborn calf, leading to damage of bodily organs, infection of the brain, arthritis or a host of other maladies.
The navel cord must dry quickly to avoid infection. A damp cord is the perfect site for harmful bacteria to breed. Once the bacteria invade the outer part of the cord, they have a perfect pathway into the calf's body through that navel stump. Female calves usually have a dry navel stump within the first 24 hours of birth, especially if they are on dry bedding. However, because of anatomical differences, bull calves are more susceptible to navel ill. The urination process of a male calf means that his navel stump is more likely to stay damp longer, increasing the likelihood of a navel cord infection.
Step One to Navel Ill-Inflammation
The first step of a navel cord infection is when inflammation occurs in the first few days after birth. A normal navel cord is pink and healthy until it dries up to a brittle, brown stump. However, an inflamed cord will be red, swollen, and hot. The calf will be sore and the navel cord area will be tender. The abdominal area around the top of the cord will feel large and swollen. At this point, calves may be feverish and lethargic or they may simply be a bit sluggish.
Prompt action when the cord first becomes inflamed is crucial to the calf's health. Calves can go several weeks with navel ill before severe symptoms are observed. Addressing the illness when it is in the early stages is much easier than waiting until the calf's whole body is affected.
The best treatment of the infection at this point is surgical removal of the infected and dead tissue. A veterinarian can come out to the farm and open the wound, flush out the infection and leave an opening for the infection to drain from the calf's body. The farmer will probably need to clean the wound once or twice a day to make sure that the calf recovers well. Many calves will also need antibiotic injections for several days to make sure that they will be able to fight off the infection.