Navel Ill (Omphalophlebitis) in Horses

Key takeaways

Umbilicus infection (omphalophlebitis), or navel ill in foals, is a condition where the stump of the umbilical cord becomes infected shortly after birth.

  • Left untreated, the condition can quickly become life- threatening, with foals deteriorating rapidly
  • Primary symptoms of umbilicus infection are a swollen, warm, or painful umbilical stump, fever, lethargy, and poor nursing
  • If the infection continues to develop, symptoms may increase to signs of sepsis including difficulty breathing, diarrhea, and colic
  • Diagnostics include physical examination, blood work, diagnostic imaging, and blood/umbilicus culture
  • Treatments vary based on severity of infection but may include antibiotics, surgery, and anti-inflammatories
  • Prognosis is dependent on the severity of the infection and the initial response to antibiotics
  • Infections with a strong response to antibiotics have a good prognosis
  • Other factors such as secondary infections worsen the prognosis
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A closer look: Navel Ill (Omphalophlebitis) in Horses

Umbilicus infection is fairly common in newborn horses. If caught and treated promptly, it can have a good prognosis.

If severe, this condition is life-threatening and requires emergency intervention. Without intervention it can very quickly lead to sepsis, septic arthritis, or pneumonia, all of which are life-threatening, especially to foals.

Risk factors

Newborn foals are reliant on antibodies from mother’s milk in the first days of life while their body is developing its own immune system. Until the newborn has its own developed immune system, it is vulnerable to all kinds of infection, including navel ill. If infection is not caught early, it can develop into life-threatening sepsis, pneumonia, and/or joint infections.

Cases of navel ill can lead to joint infections, which may present with swollen joints.

Possible causes

The cause of this condition is a bacterial infection of the umbilical stump. In the days immediately after birth, the umbilical stump is essentially an open wound, making it vulnerable to infection. Since the foal does not have a fully developed immune system, even minor infections can develop into life-threatening sepsis during the initial period after birth.

Main symptoms

Testing and diagnosis

After a physical examination and medical history, a number of tests can be done to determine the condition and severity and include:

  • Blood work
  • Diagnostic imaging
  • Blood/umbilicus culture

Steps to Recovery

Once umbilicus infection is confirmed, treatment involves:

  • Aggressive antibiotic treatment
  • Umbilical stump surgical resection
  • Symptom management including anti-inflammatory medications

If the foal responds well to antibiotics, the prognosis is generally good. If the infection is more severe and requires more intensive treatments, the prognosis is fair and recovery will take longer.

If secondary conditions develop (such as sepsis, pneumonia, or joint infections), the prognosis worsens.


Factors that reduce the risk of developing umbilicus infection include:

  • A clean and hygienic environment
  • Quality colostrum after birth
  • Adequate colostrum intake
  • Dipping the umbilical stump after birth with a disinfectant

Umbilicus infection in foals is not contagious.

Is Navel Ill (Omphalophlebitis) in Horses common?

Umbilicus infection is common in foals.

Typical Treatment

  • Antibiotics
  • Surgery
  • Symptom management including anti-inflammatory medications

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