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Navel ill occurs when bacteria invade the umbilical cord of a newborn calf. This malady can be prevented by using clean calving practices and dipping the navel in a disinfectant solution. However, sometimes, despite all of the precautions that a farmer may take, a calf can come down with navel ill.

The infection could stay in the external part of the umbilical cord. Yet, at times it travels through the cord and into the abdominal cavity of the calf through the blood vessels that lie in this area. If the infection affects the calf's arteries, it could travel all throughout the calf's body. Additionally, it is not uncommon for the calf's veins to be affected by navel ill. The infection can easily travel through the veins to the liver of the animal.

Abscesses and Liver Infection

Abscesses can occur anywhere that the infection takes hold. The calf's umbilical area may develop a pocket of infection, or the liver can develop an abscess. Sometimes the abscess on the liver can be as large as half of that crucial organ, impairing its ability to work properly. When the infection reaches this point, the calf will start to look very obviously ill. He will get a droopy appearance, have a poor appetite, and not gain weight like a healthy calf should. The veterinarian should be called out to determine exactly how far the infection has spread. The vet may also do surgery on the calf to open up the abscesses and allow them to drain. Antibiotic treatment alone may not be sufficient to bring the calf back to health.

Joint Ill

Navel ill frequently leads to joint ill. The bacteria of a navel infection can spread through the calf's blood. Sometimes the infection will settle in the calf's joints. The joints will develop abscesses, called septic arthritis. The calf's joints will become enlarged, swollen and tender. The calf may limp or hobble as he walks. If the calf survives the infection, he may be troubled with stiff, achy joints for some time. If the calf is treated attentively, he may still be saved. However, he will need plenty of prompt, careful medical care to survive.


When joint ill develops, calves need broad-spectrum antibiotics. By treating him promptly, a calf with joint ill may be able to avoid damage to the joints. Many ranchers use injections of penicillin as a treatment for joint ill. Even when the calf is looking better, the antibiotic treatment should be continued for four or five days to make sure that all of the bacteria in the body are killed. If abscesses do not begin to clear up within a few days of starting treatment, they may need to be drained by a veterinarian. At times, calves with severe joint ill may need antibiotic treatments for several weeks. Some farmers give their calves probiotics while they are on antibiotic treatments to help the rumen and intestinal bacteria recover from the use of antibiotics.
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