Calf diarrhoea (scours) is normal. As newborn calves adjust to drinking milk (rather than being supplied food by the placenta) it is only natural that the gut should begin to function in “fits and starts”. The best assessment of whether or not scours is a problem is to look at the mob or pens of calves; not just considering the consistency of individual faeces, but viewing the whole group and the whole calf (not just the faeces).
In any given mob of calves, 10% scouring is no big deal – especially if they seem otherwise bright and energetic, and are drinking well. 30% could be a problem, and more than 50% is definitely a problem. It is also a problem if calves are lacklustre, lying down a lot and not drinking – or if you have more than 5% deaths.
Scours can come from a variety of causes. Most are not fatal by themselves, but they combine together, if the calves did not get much colostrum and if dehydration is not well managed then things can get fatal pretty quickly.
Causes of scours
The predisposing factors for scours are similar almost regardless of the cause. Some of the more common factors in outbreaks are inadequate colostrum intake, poor feeding hygiene, poor feeding routines with poor quality CMRs (calf milk replacers), inadequate housing and overcrowding.
The pathogens involved in calf scours vary from
None (as with smple nutritional scours)
Where there is no pathogen involved the diarrhoea is temporary and mild. This is sometimes caused “milk scours” and can be a result of a change in the milk/colostrum supply or dilution.
The main viruses are rotavirus and coronavirus, which are highly contagious. Rotavirus has a rapid incubation and can cause scours in calves just a few days old. These viruses destroy the rapidly growing cells of the intestinal tract. By themselves the effects soon pass, with very little impact on health. However if they combine with other pathogens then serious diarrhoea may result.
The protozoan organism Cryptosporidium also multiply in the gut lining cells, but eventually burst out of the cells destroying the gut lining and its absorptive function. It can take a long time to run it’s course.
Salmonella and E.coli are the big two bacteria which may be involved. They stick to intestinal cells and can both produce toxins which make calves very sick. With some strains of E.coli calves may die even before onset of diarrhoea. Some strains (but not all) cause damage to the lining of the gut, with associated blood scours and stripping of the gut lining. Following severe Salmonella infection, bacteria may spread to the brain, lungs and joints.
Management of Scours
Diagnosis of the infectious agent is very useful, as it can influence both prevention and treatment. This may be achieved by stool samples but post-mortem tissues might be necessary as well. Postmortem exams and examination of the scene by an experienced vet can be very insightful.
Treatment of scours is based on the following;
Good fluid therapy
In mild cases oral therapy is sufficient, but if severely dehydrated (assessed by eyeball sunkenness and skin tenting) intravenous therapy is essential. Milk may be discontinued for a short period, but should be reinstated as soon as possible to provide energy, even if it makes the calves a little loose.
Balanced fluid therapy not only corrects water deficits, but also corrects electrolyte, acidosis and energy deficits as well. This is the cornerstone of survival and recovery.
The use of very broad spectrum such as Bivatop is wise as we may not know the cause, and damage to the gut lining can allow all sorts of bacteria to enter the bloodstream. Injectable is best, so all tissues are reached.
This can be a dramatic help, as pain free calves will suckle better and rehydrate themselves. Metacam 20 has an outstanding reputation and scientific backing for this purpose.
Prevention and control of calf scours is best achieved in shed by patience, cleanliness and attention to detail. Provision of high quality feeds, good hygiene, careful observation and prompt/vigorous treatment of calves is recommended.
Setting up the calf shed with batch management (all in, all out) and vaccination of dams against E.coli, Salmonella and rota/corona viruses can be very helpful, provided the calves are fed adequate colostrum!
Give us a call if you have any questions about setting up calf sheds, establishing treatment protocols or training staff.