How to Recognize and Treat Calf Scours

By Jane Meggitt

Scours is the livestock term for diarrhea, so it isn't hard to recognize in calves. However, diarrhea isn't the only sign of scours, a condition that can easily kill a young bovine. In treating calf scours, time is of the essence. Since some diseases -- such as salmonella -- that can cause calf scours also affect people, you shold wear protective gloves when handling scouring calves and always wash your hands thoroughly following exposure.

Recognizing Scours

Depending on the cause of a calf's diarrhea, the watery feces might be green, yellow, brown or gray. They may also contain mucus and blood. If the latter is present, or the feces appear rusty, the calf may be suffering from coccidia or salmonella infection. In addition to having poor stool quality and consistency, an affected calf appears depressed and may stop nursing. Because scours quickly depletes his bodily fluids, the calf becomes dehydrated. His eyes sink in, and his bones become more prominent. Eventually, he may have difficulty walking and staying upright.

Replacing Electrolytes

You must replace the fluids and electrolytes the calf is losing through scouring. Always keep commercial electrolyte supplements on hand if you have livestock. If the calf is upright, mix the electrolyte solution according to package directions and feed via an esophageal feeder. That's a tube with a probe on one end and a plastic bottle for holding fluid on the other. When you're using the esophageal feeder, make sure the calf doesn't aspirate fluid into his lungs. Wash the feeder with soap thoroughly after each use, then rinse it in a hot water-and-bleach solution. Your vet can advise you how much of the solution to give your calf and how often to administer it.

Intravenous Fluids

Oral electrolyte therapy isn't sufficient for a severely ill calf, especially one no longer capable of standing. He'll require intravenous fluid therapy, which a vet should administer. Generally, the vet inserts a catheter into the animal's jugular vein through which the intravenous fluids flow. Your vet decides on the proper amount of IV therapy for your animal based on the calf's size and scouring severity.

Scouring Calf Management

Beside providing fluid therapy, make sure the sick calf is kept in a warm, draft-free environment. Make sure his bedding is dry and clean. If possible, leave the sick calf with his mother. Keep the calf and his mother away from the rest of the herd. If the calf isn't nursing or drinking milk replacer, ask your vet about appropriate nutritional support. Keep careful records of the calf's manure output and consistency, the amount of fluids given, and the calf's physical appearance.

Scours Prevention

Calves who receive colostrum from their mothers within 24 hours of birth are less likely to scour than calves who did not receive this vital first milk full of maternal antibodies. Dairy calves, who typically do not nurse off their mothers for very long, are particularly vulnerable. Give any calf commercial, frozen or fresh colostrum on his second day of life for additional benefits. During the calf's first two weeks of life, check his fecal output and his milk-replacer consumption, and note whether he has developed a nasal discharge. Do this at least three times daily. You can also add probiotics, to improve gut health, to his milk replacer.