The Importance Of Livestock Newborn Umbilical Care

Livestock umbilical care is an easy, effective way to ensure a good start to life for newborn animals. Here's what to know about managing your young livestock's belly button.

by Anna O'Brien
PHOTO: scandamerican/Adobe Stock

With newborns abounding this spring, now seems a good time to remind ourselves how important proper livestock umbilical care is. A direct link from mother to offspring when in the womb, the umbilicus, for a short period of time after birth, is also a direct link between environmental pathogens and the neonate’s insides.

No wonder the medical word for infection of the umbilicus is omphalitis, with the Greek root omphalos, which means “a central point or hub.” It’s also sometimes colloquially called navel ill. Here are some tips to ensure proper cleanliness and care of your newborn’s belly button, whether it be a calf, lamb, kid, piglet, cria or foal.

About the Umbilicus

When a calf or other livestock mammal is born, its connection to its mother via the umbilical cord is broken during passage through the birth canal. What’s in the cord are two umbilical arteries, an umbilical vein, and a tube called the urachus, which siphones fetal urine out of the body to be processed by the mother.

After birth, these structures quickly shrink and close. What’s left is a section of the umbilicus hanging from the abdomen of the newborn—typically about 5 to 15 centimeters in length in a calf.

For up to a week, this umbilicus is still wet. Wet and dangley things have a habit of acting like a sponge, soaking up bacteria and other pathogens in the environment. It’s easy to imagine an umbilicus as a super highway directly into the hub of the calf—a pathogen’s dream. For this reason, one of the most important things a hobby farmer can do in terms of neonatal care is dip the umbilicus in disinfectant to keep it clean and prevent pathogen transmission.

Read more: Dehydration is a serious danger for newborn livestock.

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Don’t Skip the Dip

So what do you use as a dip and when do you do so? Let’s answer the second question first: A neonate’s umbilicus should be dipped as soon as possible.

Now, what dip to use? The gold standard is a 7-percent tincture of iodine. This not only has antimicrobial properties, but also acts as a drying agent. An umbilicus in livestock can take up to a week to dry out. The faster this process occurs, the better, since once dry, the umbilicus will shrivel and fall off, closing off access to the abdomen.

Other navel dip agents exist: 4-percent chlorhexidine is another commonly used dip and is perfectly fine to use. One warning: On dairy farms, you may be tempted to use teat dips as umbilical dips. Do not do this, as teat dips are not strong enough to help prevent infection of the umbilicus.

But is a single navel dip enough? If the calf or other neonate is housed in a clean and dry environment, then yes. But if housing is sub-optimal and the neonate is surrounded by wet and dirty substrate, a daily dip for the first few days is your best defense.

This illustrates that neonatal livestock umbilical health is a two-tiered process: a) dipping the umbilicus and b) keeping the environment as dry and clean as possible.

Treating Umbilicus Infection

What happens then if an umbilicus becomes infected? Signs to watch for include:

  • Chronically wet umbilicus past one week
  • Swollen umbilicus
  • Heat and pain around the area
  • Discharge/foul smell

If you notice any of these signs in your young livestock, contact your veterinarian immediately. If the infection is caught early and limited to the umbilical area, this can be relatively easy to treat with antimicrobials. However, if left too long, infection can spread to the neonate’s bloodstream, causing sepsis.

This is a much more serious body-wide infection with a guarded outcome.

A general understanding of umbilical care and a healthy respect for its importance are really all you need to help your young livestock get a good start on a healthy life.

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