Conditions or ailments that are the cause of a problem that you see - your observation.

Your vet may diagnose

Foal, Umbilical Infection or Abscess

Synonyms: Omphalophlebitis, Navel Ill, Infected Belly Button


Called "navel ill" by horsemen, infection of the umbilical remnants is a relatively common problem in young foals, usually between 1 week to 2 months old.

This infection can occur with patent urachus, an umbilical stump dribbling urine. It is also common in weak foals that cannot rise, due to greater exposure to and contact with bacteria in bedding. Unsanitary handling or aggressive treatment of the umbilicus with antiseptics (after birth) can damage the tissues and set up conditions for infection.

Without prompt diagnosis and treatment, bacteria are showered into the bloodstream from the abscess, and these are seeded into joints and tendon sheaths, resulting in infection in these areas.

Signs of an umbilical infection in the weeks to month-old foal include fever and swollen umbilicus. However, this problem may not be that obvious, as it may only involve the internal umbilical structures. A common presenting complaint is lameness or a painful hot and/or swollen joint.

Diagnosis requires a careful veterinary exam. Ultrasound is extremely useful in diagnosing this problem and is the only way to diagnose more subtle cases. Blood work can also be helpful to support the diagnosis. Part of the work-up of any foal with an infected (septic) joint is careful ultrasound evaluation of the umbilicus.

Once a foal has been diagnosed with infected umbilicus, prompt, thorough and aggressive treatment is needed. Surgical removal of the remnants is an accepted treatment. In all cases, the whole foal must be treated. Infected joints must be managed, and the foal stabilized before surgery is considered.

my vet's role


The prognosis is fair to good with prompt diagnosis and aggressive treatment and surgery. Once the joints are infected, the prognosis is far worse.

my role


I might observe

You might make these observations when a horse has this condition.

Very Common
Less Common
more observations

Questions To Ask Your Vet:
  • Can we manage this with antibiotics alone, or is surgery indicated?
  • Is the foal's systemic health strong enough for surgery?
  • Why did the foal develop umbilical abscess?
  • What can be done in the future to prevent this in other foals?
  • Has the infection seeded into the joints or tendon sheaths?

Manage dystocia quickly and effectively. Manage underlying disorders quickly and effectively whenever possible.

Always treat the umbilicus under the direction of your vet, use good sanitary technique and very dilute antiseptics.

Today the standard is to treat the umbilicus gently and with mild disinfectants only. Foaling in hygienic facilities reduces the likelihood of infection. Test for IgG levels, and ensure that the foal gets good antibody transfer (IgG>800mg/dl).

further reading & resources

Author: Doug Thal DVM Dipl. ABVP