Knowing the symptoms and causes of calf diarrhea may be the ounce of prevention that is worth a pound of cure.
“Diarrhea is just a change in fecal consistency,” said Colorado State University veterinarian Frank Garry.
“Where it becomes important is when it is associated with disease.”
Calves with scours may look normal, but they get depressed or dehydrated and may go down or die as the condition worsens.
Newborns need a healthy dose of colostrum to help them fight off infections such as scours.
“Getting colostrum to calves is really important for preventing disease and death,” Garry said at a University of Calgary beef cattle conference held earlier this year.
Colostrum’s maternal antibodies help calves fight off a bacterial invasion, but it doesn’t do much for preventing infection from protozoa such as cryptosporidium parvum.
The most common causes of calf diarrhea are cryptosporidium, rotavirus and corona virus. The peak time for sickness is around 10 days of age because that is how long it takes these agents to grow and cause infection. They cause fluid and electrolyte loss, but often the first thing producers do is give their sick calves antibiotics, even though they are ineffective against these types of infections.
“A calf infected with these problems is going to end up with damage to the gut that is very superficial, easily reparable and all these calves recover once they get rid of the bug,” he said.
“These infections do not kill calves. What kills calves is loss of fluid and electrolytes. If you put as much fluid in the front end as is going out the back end, these calves will survive.”
The more body water is lost, the more depressed the calf becomes. However, getting more fluids into calves may be more difficult on a ranch setting.
Bacteria such as E.coli, salmonella and clostridium can also cause scours, but it is often too late by the time a producer sees this kind of sickness and the gut has stopped functioning. Bacterial infections can cause serious damage to the affected tissue and can spread through the bloodstream and damage muscle, kidneys, lungs or the brain.
“Salmonella can cause a worse respiratory infection than the in-testinal infection,” Garry said.
There are physical exams that most people can do when calves look sick.
Depressed animals become dopey and lethargic.
Try the tent test if looking for signs of dehydration. The skin will go back down in normal circumstances when the skin is pulled up. However, the skin does not go down if dehydration has set in because there is not enough fluid there.
Sunken eyes are another sign of dehydration. Ears, noses and tails that feel chilly means not enough blood is moving through.
A fever is an indication of inflammation.
Redness around the eye occurs in a bad inflammation because not enough blood may be returning. As well, joints may be swollen.
Simple scours will show excellent response to fluid therapy via oral, subcutaneous or intravenous methods.
Antibiotics have limited efficacy.
Scours treatments are for sale, but they may further disturb the gut flora and the calf may still have diarrhea.
Products such as Pepto-Bismol, banamine and other anti-inflammatories may help, but no good trials have shown that any work well.
Call the veterinarian if the situation is worsening. However, the outcome may not be good regardless, so the producer needs to figure out how to prevent an outbreak from happening the next time.
A vet may want to do a necropsy, which Garry said is underused in cattle medicine. Collecting samples for further examination in a laboratory can provide answers to what went wrong.
“If you are going to do this, you really ought to be working with a veterinarian because you have a more complicated problem.”