Ask the Vet

Heritability Of Hernias In Calves

Umbilical hernias in calves are likely hereditary, so if problems occur consider using a different bull for future matings.(DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Becky Mills)

Question: We had a big calf born during the night with intestines exposed. It was dead when I found it. I assume this was a herniation of some sort, as it was near the umbilical cord. Was this just a fluke of nature or some sort of inherited disorder?


Answer: This sounds like an umbilical hernia that broke open or was so large the skin never covered it. This is more common with a difficult birth and increased pressure on the hernia sac. It’s one of the most frequent congenital problems we see in calves and is more common in Holstein cattle and in certain breeds of dogs.


While no one has proven umbilical hernias are hereditary, I do not think anyone doubts they are. Even if hereditary, you may not see a problem again with the same mating. Just to be safe, I would use a different bull if possible.


I have repaired a bunch of these calves through the years—even a few with exposed intestines. The prognosis is usually poorer if the hernia is open. Unless a hernia is strangulated, or the intestines are exposed, I wait until a calf is a little older and stronger before fixing.

(SK)