Joint ill (Navel ill) of Calves

The HAF RESEARCH data show that the number of cases of joint ill in calves this spring is much higher than normal for the time of year:

What is joint ill?

Navel or joint ill is a disease of young calves, usually less than one week of age. It occurs as a result of infection entering via the umbilical cord at, or soon after, birth. This infection can result in a range of signs depending on where the bacteria spread to.

Clinical Signs

Navel ill

  • If infection stays mostly confined to the navel, the primary sign is a swollen, painful navel that does not dry up
  • An abscess may develop from which pus (often like a thick custard) may burst
  • The calf may have a high temperature and reduced appetite

Joint ill

If infection spreads from the navel, or navel ill is not treated, further signs will develop as bacteria spread via the bloodstream and settle in other parts of the body.

  • The commonest sites for bacteria to settle are the joints. This leads to swollen stiff painful (often hot) joints
  • Temperature will be raised while the bacteria spread but by the time the disease is noted it may be normal
  • Loss of appetite and depression
  • Usually only a few calves in a batch are infected though outbreaks can occur where hygiene is very poor

Other sites where bacteria can settle include the eyes, around the heart and the brain. Death is common in the latter cases. In some calves infection spreads from the navel to the liver causing a liver abscess. In this case problems may not be noted until the calves are older (1 .3 months)


The diagnosis of joint or navel ill is usually based on the clinical signs. If a swollen navel is the main sign, ensure that it is not a hernia before treating All calves that die suddenly should be have a PM examination


  • Early prompt treatment is important as early treatment is much more effective
  • Separate the infected animals and isolate them. TLC is an essential part of treatment.
  • Antibiotics and painkillers are effective in most mild cases. Antibiotic treatment should continue until after the signs have disappeared (which can take over a week even in mild cases)
  • Severe cases may not recover even with prolonged antibiotic treatment
  • For large navel abscesses, veterinary intervention to drain and remove the infected tissue is often necessary


Prevention is the key to this disease. Ensuring that the cow calves in a clean environment will significantly reduce the risk of joint ill (and many other diseases such as toxic mastitis and metritis). Proper planning and preparation can prevent the build-up of disease that occurs in too many calving areas.

Applying a disinfectant (such as iodine) to the navel can reduce the risk of bacteria entering via the navel, but it is no substitute for good hygiene. No amount of disinfectant can overcome being born in a dirty wet yard. Because of the anatomy, bulls navels tend to dry slower than heifers and they are thus at more risk of navel ill. Applying disinfectant two or three times to bulls can reduce the risk.

It is also important to ensure that if cattle are born in a nice clean environment that they arenft moved to other pens or contaminated pastures until the navel has dried completely.

Finally, like all diseases of young calves getting sufficient colostrum is essential. Ensure that all calves get a good suck in the first 6 hours of birth. If this doesnft happen ensure that they get at least 2 litres of colostrum as soon as possible. Colostrum works best if calves take it from a bucket, but if stomach tubing is the only option itfs a lot better than no colostrum.


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