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Calf Scours

Calf scours is another word for diarrhea in calves often caused by a pathogen that causes digestive upset or an infection in the gastro-intestinal tract of the calf. These pathogens often prevent the intestines from absorbing fluids and/or secretions thus causing a watery discharge.

Scouring results in dehydration and causes a calf to become lethargic, have disinterest in eating or drinking, unthriftiness, and eventually death in severe cases.

Most calf scours are seen with dairy calves, but it's also not uncommon with beef calves. Scouring can occur when a calf is anywhere from a day old to several months old, however most cases occur when calves are between 2 to 3 weeks of age. Interestingly, a calf borne from a heifer is more likely to scour than a calf borne from a cow, likely because of the lack of sufficient antibodies in the heifer's colostrum are enough to allow certain pathogens which the calf has no immunity to to enter the calf and cause scouring.

The causes and treatment of scours vary depending on the pathogen that is causing it, as such most cases that are unknown should be taken up by a veterinarian. However, some information on scouring and the best treatments available should be known among those who are responsible for the care of their calves.

Most causes of diarrhea in calves less than a week (or five days) old are caused by bacteria. Salmonella and Escherichia coli are most common bacterial species to affect the intestine's ability to absorb fluids from the gut.

When a calf is less than five days old and scouring, the best treatment options is using antibiotics, often given in oral-pill form.

Calves that have diarrhea after five days of age are much more often to be infected with a virus or parasite, not a bacteria. If the calf is found to have a bacterial infection causing scouring, it could most likely be secondary. Most common viruses causing scouring are Rotovirus and Coronavirus. Parasites include Coccidia and Cryptosporidia. Antibiotics will not be effective with either.

Bacteria is often not the primary cause of calf scours in calves older than a week of age because of the lower pH in the calf's abomasum. A lower pH will kill bacteria more readily than viruses or parasites. Thus, not only will oral tablets be ineffective, but so will injectable antibiotics. Oral electrolytes are more effective at helping a calf to combat viral infections.

Some Common Misconceptions:
1. Too much milk causes a calf to scour:
- Calves in a natural environment consume around 20% (16 to 24%) of their bodyweight in milk per day. Traditional feeding dictates that calves on the bottle should be fed half of that--only 10% per day. Reason: efficiency, time management, fear too much milk limits starter intake levels.
- Scours are caused by pathogenic infections, not excessive consumption of milk. Majority of pathogens enter calves from a dirty, soiled environment (such as a dirty calving area), from inadequate intake of colostrum (colostrum not given to calf within 2 hours of birth), poor-quality milk replacers, unsanitized feeding equipment, overcrowding, and lack of attention of vaccination dam against E.coli (specific strain [K99]) scours.

2. Because colostrum fights disease, it can be handled with dirty equipment and held at room temperature.
- False
- Colostrum, when given soon enough and in sufficient quantities (such as four quarts given immediately to a newborn Holstein calf), only fights infection when in the calf.
- Bacteria can multiply very quickly in warm environment, doubling their population every 30 minutes, and contaminates will multiply at least as rapidly in colostrum as in milk.
- Colostrum must be handled in the same way as milk in order to preserve quality.
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