Joint ill in calves is often experienced as a secondary effect to umbilical (navel) infection. It is common among calves that are less than a week old. If not treated timeously, further signs may develop as bacteria spreads via the blood stream to other parts of body eventually leading to death. For this reason, the cause of joint ill in calves should be investigated to allow for effective treatment. In order to achieve this, it is of the essence that farmers understand the causes, symptoms as well as the effects of the illness. In addition, they should also possess sound knowledge on the preventative and treatment measures. Failure to do so can result in detrimental effects in animal health and productivity thereby threatening the profitability and continuity of the cattle farming venture.

Causes of Joint Ill in Calves

Joint ill in calves is caused by a variety of factors. However, the most common cause is navel infection which often spreads throughout the body finally settling at the joints. In fact, according to agricultural research, joint ill problems are most commonly witnessed in young calves as a secondary infection to umbilical (navel) infections shortly after birth. The navel portion of the calf is infected by bacterial contamination of umbilicus following parturition. The bacteria spreads via the umbilical cord which is a connection between the foetus and mother. The umbilical code mainly provides the foetus with nutrients necessary for development during intrauterine life. In some cases such as with joint ill, the umbilical code also transfers bacteria which will in turn spread across the body of the cows until finally settling on the joints. The result is a diseases that attacks joints and is considered as catastrophic. Note that calves are generally born with an extremely poor immune system therefore are not able to fight infection and disease soon after birth. As such, most calves that develop infections and diseases at such an early age die. Depending on severity of the infection, joint ill may result in calves that develop more slowly or, in the worst case scenarios, calves that may need to be destroyed due to permanent damage of joint cartilage.  Joint ill in calves can also be caused by direct trauma or wounds to the joint or the surrounding tissues. The joints most often affected are the hock, front knee (carpus) and stifle joints. The causes of joint ill in calves can be summarised as:

  • Localisation of bacteria from the bloodstream into joint(s).
  • Bacteria enter the bloodstream from the gut and upper respiratory tract.
  • The untreated umbilicus is not a common portal for bacteria.
  • coli and Strep. spp are the common isolates from infected joints.

Symptoms of Joint Ill in Calves

A proper diagnosis is of the essence in the treatment of joint ill in calves. For this reason, farmers should be able to identify various symptoms of joint ill so as to administer relevant treatment. In addition, this will enable farmers to determine the severity of the infection so as to provide the appropriate dosage. As stated earlier on, the common site for infections are joints. That being said, joint ill in calves are easily identifiable by swollen painful (often hot) joints. Other symptoms include loss of appetite and depression. An increase in temperature is often experienced while the bacteria spreads. Note that once established, the temperature will return back to normal after which other symptoms manifest. Another important point to note is that if the condition is not treated timeously, further signs will develop as bacteria spreads via the bloodstream to the rest of the body. Clinical signs that veterinary medical professionals look out for when treating joint ill in calves are:

  • Calves with two or more limbs affected adopt a “crab-like” stance
  • Fetlock, knee and hock joints are most commonly affected
  • Rapid muscle atrophy compared to the unaffected leg
  • The navel may be thickened and painful
  • The drainage lymph node is enlarged
  • Fracture of a long bone
  • Trauma to joints
  • Osteomyelitis
  • Rickets and muscular dystrophy

Prevention of Joint Ill in Calves

Navel infections which are the main causes of joint ill in calves usually occur in environments with poor hygiene. It is therefore advisable to keep a clean calving area to minimise risk of infection. Once the calf is able to breathe easily, it should be moved to a hygienic bedding area so that it is no exposed to manure, urine and dirt that can lead to bacterial infection. Environmental bacterial challenge in calving boxes should be reduced by cleaning out between each calving unit. In addition, a new born calf should be fed adequate amounts of colostrum to strength the immune system thereby allowing some form of resistance to bacterial infection. An oesophageal feeder can be used to administer colostrum if the calf is unable to suck. Umbilicus (navel) must be fully immersed in strong veterinary iodine BP within the first 15 minutes of life and repeated 2 to 4 hours later where possible.

Treatment of Joint Ill in Calves

Antibiotics are usually used to treat joint ill in calves. Farmers should use antibiotics only when they have been prescribed by a certified veterinary. This is because the dosage and type of antibiotics required can only be prescribed after clinical diagnosis has been completed. However the recommended dosage often ranges between 10 to 12.5mg per kg. The dosage can be slightly altered depending on the severity of the infection and type of antibiotics used. Another treatment method for joint illness in calves is known as phytotherapy. This method makes use of natural means such as herbs and oils. The common herbs used include aloe-vera, garlic and pepper mint oils. They are selected due to their superior ability to fight infections. Phytotherapy must only be used for acute infections. Severe joint ill in calves is treated with antibiotics or surgery.  Furthermore, surgical means can also be used to treat joint ill in calves.  Joint lavage is a surgical procedure that has proven to be highly effective in treating joint ill in calves. The procedure mainly involves sedating the calf and flushing a sterile solution into the joint through precisely placed needles. The procedure is able to remove bacteria and toxins from the joints. Surgical procedures must be carried out by highly skilled professionals as they are risky.