Vet's View: Prevention is better than cure

Navel and joint ill in calves can have devastating consequences, but preventation early treatment can be very effective, says Iain R Carrington

Iain R Carrington
Iain R Carrington

Navel ill and joint ill are common problems in calves usually less than one week old.

As the calf is born the umbilical cord breaks leaving a raw stump, which can then act as a route of entry for the bacteria that cause these conditions.

Infection can be from a single strain of bacteria or a mixture and symptoms vary with the spread within the body.

Problems normally start when calving occurs in conditions of poor hygiene, low colostrum intake and inadequate navel dressing.

Joint ill can also occur when bacteria enter via the respiratory system or gastro-intestinal tract.

Although the calf’s immune system is functional at this age it has not been primed by exposure to the environment and so the calf must rely on the protection provided by the ingestion of colostrum to combat disease in the early stages of life.

Navel ill occurs when the infection is localised to the umbilicus and surrounding area.

The main clinical signs are a painful, swollen, wet naval, linked with a high temperature and loss of appetite. If untreated an abscess is likely to form, which may burst or can be lanced, discharging large quantities of pus - sometimes surgical removal is the only option.

It is important not to confuse an umbilical hernia with navel ill, so proper examination before treatment is essential.

Joint ill occurs when bacteria enter the blood stream and seed themselves into the joints, causing septic arthritis Sometimes the bacteria can establish themselves in other parts of the body such as the liver, brain, eyes and heart – death is common with spread to these other locations.

Symptoms observed depend on the area of the body affected.

In joint ill lameness is often the first sign observed and, when examined, the affected joints are hot, swollen, stiff and painful.

Infection in the liver leads to abscess formation and problems are often not noticed until the calf is one to three months old.

Treatment for these conditions needs to be early, aggressive and prolonged; your vet will be able to advise you and prescribe suitable antibiotics and pain relief.

Good nursing is essential and surgery or drainage may be required to affect the best possible result.

Severe cases may not recover even after lengthy therapy.

Prevention is the key to controlling these conditions.

If calves are homebred their navels should be dressed with a suitable disinfectant or antibiotic spray, making sure to cover the whole cord.

When buying in calves they should have their navels checked and those where they are enlarged should be rejected.

Colostrum is essential and a suitable consumption is easier to ensure in homebred calves, but it is possible to blood test bought-in calves to check for those that might be at risk of disease due to inadequate intake.

Calving pens and areas should be cleaned with proper planning to prevent the build up of disease when used heavily.

It is also important that calves are not be moved until their navels have completely dried. Advice can be gained from your vet and should be included in your herd health plan.

Iain Carrington BVM&S MRCVS

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