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What Causes Water Belly in Calves?

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Water belly is the everyday term for urinary calculi, a condition involving stones, or calculi, building up in a calf's urinary system. Similar to kidney stones in humans, it affects only male ruminants. Among calves, the condition is more frequently seen in steers -- male calves that have been castrated -- although bull calves may also develop it. Treatment is not always successful, so taking preventative steps is wise.

A Build-Up of Stones

Calculi, or stones, build up in either the kidney or bladder. They're composed of mineral salts in the urine that bind to form a stone and block the urethra. Occasionally these stones may not trouble the calf, but generally they move into the section of the urethra within the penis, where they cause pain and irritation. Animals who are out on the range may consume too many silicates in plant and water, and this contributes to the development of water belly.

Total Blockage

More seriously, they may also completely obstruct the flow of urine. When this happens, the kidneys keep producing urine, but because the calf is unable to eliminate the urine, the bladder becomes distended, causing the animal serious pain. If the blockage goes untreated, the bladder can rupture within 24 hours. If this happens, urine fills the abdominal cavity, hence the name "water belly." Unfortunately, the calf will die from the bladder ruptures.

Diet, Water and Season

Diet and water affect the formation of stones in the kidney or bladder. However, since water belly is less frequently seen in bull calves, veterinarian David Van Metre at Colorado State University suggests delaying the castration of male calves, although he doesn't specify an age. Controlling the amount of calcium, magnesium, phosphate and silicate in a herd's diet is a key preventative measure. Ensuring that cattle drink enough water to keep the urine diluted is another measure, because dehydration is another factor in the development of stones. It may also occur seasonally. Cold weather may reduce water consumption, but by the time the cattle resumes drinking sufficient water, the urinary calculi have formed.


If the condition is detected early enough, the animal may be given a urinary tract relaxant so the calf can try to pass the stones. Surgical removal of the stones is another option. If successful, this will allow the calf to become a meat-producing steer. However, because of the short time in which water belly can became critical and cause death, a farmer may decide to have the animal slaughtered immediately on diagnosis of the condition.