The navel of a newborn calf is a potential source of infection from the start of its life, writes vet Lisa Whitfield.

A lot of emphasis is rightly placed on colostrum management for newborn calves, however coming a close second in importance should be care of navels.

The navel is a weak point on the body of a calf, being located in a place which is guaranteed to come in contact with all sorts of bacteria from the environment, and lacking the protection skin provides to the rest of the body. Without the luxury of calving down into clean, dry, covered sheds, many calves face the challenge of fighting off infection from the moment they are born.

While still in the uterus, the navel is the point where the calf receives its blood supply from the dam, through attachment to the placenta. The umbilical vessels enter the body at the navel, and run forward to the liver, and back toward the bladder.

During birth, the external vessels rupture and remain attached as a short length of moist tissue. This shrivels into a dry cord over the first few days of life.

The remnants of the internal umbilical vessels also shrivel and eventually become internal ligaments in the abdomen. Infection of the navel establishes in the first few days of life. Initially, the external navel becomes thickened and tender to touch. If left untreated, this can form into an abscess, which may discharge pus externally or spread into the internal umbilical remnants.

Of most concern is when a navel infection spreads internally.

With a direct connection between the navel and both the liver and bladder, internal infection can rapidly lead to a very unwell calf. Abscesses can develop on the bladder, liver or in the surrounding abdominal organs. In addition, internal infection can spread bacteria throughout the body through the bloodstream – most commonly this is seen when bacteria lodge in joints (joint ill), but they may also settle in the heart (infected heart valves), brain (meningitis) and other organs.

The best outcome is if navel infections are detected early and treated. All calves should have their navels checked during the first few days of life. Treatment with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories is warranted if the navel is firm and thicker than 1 to 2cm. For any calf which is sick or not thriving, inspection and palpation of the navel is an important step in the examination process.

Navel care

Navel care begins with three critical actions:

  1. High quality colostrum intake
  2. Disinfecting the navel
  3. Minimising environmental contamination


While colostrum intake might not seem an obvious action to prevent navel infections, it is critical because the transfer of immunity this way gives the calf’s immune system a fighting chance in stopping bacteria from establishing infections within the body.

Navel disinfection

The use of iodine tincture to disinfect navels has two important actions – iodine is a broad spectrum anti-bacterial agent which kills bacteria it comes into contact with. The tincture component refers to the iodine being diluted in an alcohol such as ethanol – and for navel care, alcohol is there to dry out the navel more rapidly. Once the navel has dried off, it is harder for infections to establish. Using iodine teatspray as a navel spray is not a good choice as teatspray components such as glycerine are there to soften and moisturise which is not the effect you want for a navel.

Minimising environmental contamination

Most calves in New Zealand are born out in the elements – so exposure to dirt and moisture in the paddock is inevitable and to some extent may not be completely under our control. However, we do ultimately have control over the conditions in the calf trailers and calf sheds, and keeping these areas as clean as practicable, as well as dry, will help prevent navel infections.

Navel care in the calf is an important management step which is easily overlooked in the time-constrained rush of calving season. Taking the time to make sure each calf is free of infection, and making time to treat those which need it, will reduce stock losses and have long term animal health benefits for your farm.

  • Lisa Whitfield is a production animal veterinarian in the Manawatu