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Calf Scours: Causes, prevention and treatment

From "Beef: Questions & Answers" newsletter*
by Don Hudson, D.V.M., Extension Veterinarian and R. Gene White, D.V.M., Coordinator, Regional College of Veterinary Medicine Program, University of Nebraska

Calf scours or calf diarrhea causes more financial loss to cow-calf producers than any other disease-related problem they encounter. Calf scours is not a diseaseit is a clinical sign of a disease that can have many causes. In diarrheas, the intestine fails to absorb fluids and/or secretion into the intestine is increased.

Scours can be caused by many sources, including rotavirus, coronavirus and bovine virus diarrhea; bacteria such as Escherichia coli (Colibacillosis), Salmonella and Enterotoxemia; or other causes like Coccidiosis, Cryptosporidium and nutritional scours, which can be caused by anything that disrupts normal eating habits, such as a storm, strong wind or the mother going off hunting for new grass.

Treatment of calf scours

Treatment for scours is similar regardless of the cause and should focus on correcting the dehydration, acidosis and electrolyte loss. Antibiotic treatment can be given simultaneously with treatment for dehydration, which can be overcome with simple fluids given by mouth early in the course of the disease. If dehydration is allowed to continue, intravenous fluid treatment may become necessary.

Clinical signs of dehydration first occur when fluid loss reaches five to six percent of body weight. A ten percent loss of fluid results in depression, sunken eyes and dry skin, and the calf will probably be unable to stand. A 15 percent loss of fluids usually causes death.

Consult your veterinarian for electrolytes to be given orally. Dry electrolyte powders can be mixed with water for oral administration, but if unavailable, these three solutions for oral administration can be prepared on the ranch:

  • 1. Combine 1 can beef consomme, 1 package fruit pectin (Sure Jell or Pen Jel), 2 teaspoons low sodium salt (Morton Lite Salt), 2 teaspoons baking soda, and add enough warm water to total 2 quarts.
  • 2. Combine 1 can beef consomme, 3 cans warm water, and 1 heaping tablespoon baking soda.
  • 3. Combine 1 tablespoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon salt, and 250 cc (8 ounces) 50% dextrose or 8 ounces light Karo syrup, and add enough warm water to total 1 gallon.

Do not overfeed! Administer up to 1 quart of any of these three solutions every three to four hours, depending upon the degree of dehydration and fluid loss. These solutions can be used as the only source of nutrients for a period of 24 to 48 hours. Do not use milk or milk replacers during this period, as milk in the intestinal tract makes an ideal medium for bacterial growth. Return the calf to the cow, which has been previously milked out, as soon as the calf is able to follow its mother.

Giving electrolytes orally is always a problem unless the calf will nurse from a bottle. An esophageal probe works very well for administering oral fluids to calves. Use this device or a stomach tube when giving calves large amounts of fluids. If using a stomach tube, do not go into the stomach with the tube as this puts the material in the nondeveloped rumen rather than into the true stomach. To avoid the rumen, insert only 18 inches of the stomach tube into the calf's mouth.

Use antibiotics both orally and by injection whenever treating calves for diarrhea. In acute salmonellosis outbreaks, antibiotics may cause the release of excess endotoxins; therefore, consider using fluid therapy only.

Ear tag treated calves for identification and keep a daily record on the treatment administered. This aids in evaluating the treatment and utilizing follow-up treatments as necessary. Valuable information can be obtained by having the cows identified and identifying each calf at birth. If an outbreak of scours occurs, persistent treatment and records are essential for doing a good job.

Scour problems are an ever-existing threat to baby calves. A good program of adequate nutrition, sanitation, management and a good herd health program are necessary to minimize the incidence and losses. Early diagnosis and treatment will reduce the threat of a herd outbreak. The correct diagnosis is also very important when considering vaccinations and other procedures for the cow herd the next calving season.

* Beef: Questions & Answers is a joint project between MSU Extension and the Montana Beef Council. This column informs producers about current consumer education, promotion and research projects funded through the $1 per head checkoff. For more information, contact the Montana Beef Council at (406) 442-5111 or at beefcncl@mt.net

Early diagnosis and treatment will reduce the threat of a herd outbreak.


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