Calf Scours (Diarrhoea)

Treatment of Calf Scours – Made easy

Diarrhoea (scours) is the single most important disease of the neonatal calf and is responsible for the greatest economic losses in this age group.

Calf scours is a complex disease; the causes of which are well known (nutritional, rotavirus, E.coli, cryptosporidia, salmonella, coccidia, corona). The resulting diarrhoea leads to a loss of electrolytes and large volumes of water in the faeces, damage to the lining of the gut with reduced milk absorption and changes to the gut bacteria.

Irrespective of the cause of diarrhoea, electrolyte replacement therapy remains the primary treatment of choice.  Antibiotics & gut protectants (of which there are many) play a supportive role.


Scouring calves can be divided into 4 groups according to the degree of dehydration present;

• Bright and alert with a strong suckle reflex – group 1
• Weak suckle reflex, standing or sitting quietly – group 2
• No suckle reflex, depressed, unable to stand – group 3
• Collapsed, lying on side, no suckle reflex, death imminent – group 4

The presence or absence of the suckle reflex will primarily determine which route the fluid will be given; orally or intravenously.

Death generally arises when fluids/electrolytes are given too little or too late.

Group 1 & Group 2 Calves

Oral replacement therapy is highly effective with 95% of calves surviving if fluid therapy is administered early and continued until full recovery.  Fluids and electrolytes can be given orally either by a bottle/teat system or oesophageal feeder (see below for instructions on how to use the oesophageal feeder).
Aim to give 7-10L’s/day divided into 2 litre feeds – that’s 4-5 feeds/day!  This sounds like a lot of fluid (and work) but remember we need to replace fluid lost through ongoing diarrhoea, replace the deficits already incurred and give the calf fluid for daily maintenance requirements.

There are a number of excellent commercially available, carefully balanced electrolyte replacers on the market for treatment of calf scours. All of these products contain glucose or a similar material, sodium chloride and other electrolytes. Giving straight water does not work. Consult with your veterinarian regarding the appropriate oral electrolyte product for your needs. Always follow the label mixing instructions–do not add too much powder to the solution as this may further harm the calf and unnecessarily add to the cost of treatment.
Milk is also required to provide the calf with an energy source but milk should not be mixed with the electrolytes as this may affect curd formation within the abomasum.  A feeding interval of 3 hours is needed between electrolyte/milk feeds. The table below can be used as a guide to fluid therapy.

Group 3 & 4 Calves

Once the suckle reflex has been lost and the calf is down IV fluid therapy is therapy is essential.  Contact your vet immediately for further assistance.  IV fluid therapy can improve the status of the animal quickly (if administered early).  This will return the animal to a group 2 calf and fluid therapy can continue with an oesophageal feeder.
Fluid therapy continues until the scour has resolved.


Faecal samples are often requested/collected from sick calves to differentiate a nutritional scour from an infectious scour and to determine the causative agent.  By identifying the pathogen responsible for disease we are able to recommend product specific treatment options, effective disinfectants & vaccination programs.  We can also develop a plan and implement strategies to minimise further exposure and disease. Advances in laboratory diagnostic tools means we are able to have results back, in many cases, on the same day.


Many products exist on the market that aid in calf scour recovery and as suggested should only be used to supplement therapy.
Appropriate rehydration is essential.
Antibiotics: The use of antibiotics (scour ban, pink tablets, injectables etc) for calf scours is controversial however if blood is present in the faeces antibiotics are generally warranted.  Speak to your vet.
Binding agents: Binding agents are generally some type of plant fibre/pulp that viruses and bacteria will “stick” to. In this way the infectious agents will preferentially bind to the fibre instead of the intestinal wall and will be passed out in the diarrhoea. The binders also slow down the rate of passage of fluid through the gut, giving the intestine more time to absorb water back into the calf’s system.
Antibody powders: are now available for scours caused by either Rotavirus and/or Cryptosporidia.  It can be used to prevent and treat specific calf scours however its use is only justified upon a confirmed faecal diagnosis of either one or both of these pathogens.
Products are also available that reduce the severity of scours and the excretion of infective eggs into the environment.  Talk to your vet.


If your treatment methods are not working, contact your veterinarian immediately for additional help. If more than 5% of your calves are scouring and require treatment, you need help. If death is greater than 2% due to calf scours contact your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can submit refrigerated (not frozen) faecal samples to the lab and receive answers, in most cases, on the same day. Freshly dead calves can also be examined to determine the cause of the diarrhoea and to aid in determining those factors needed for prevention and treatment in your herd.
If you wish to discuss the management of calf scours further, require additional assistance, or need advice on animal health issues feel free to call your vet.


The most important aspect of control focuses on minimising predisposing factors and implementing strategies to prevent them from occurring on farm.
• Good colostrum management is critical to prevent disease– 2L’s of colostrum by bottle or feeder within 12 hours of birth.
• Prompt identification of sick calves, removal to hospital pens, and administration of effective, vigorous treatment.  Don’t forget calf covers for warmth.
• Establish an isolated ‘hospital’ shed to minimise the spread of disease from infected animals.   Once the calf has recovered it does not go back into the ‘healthy’ shed.
• Care should be taken to prevent the risk of personnel carrying contaminated material from the sick calves to animals in healthy pens.  Consider establishing foot baths.  Treat & feed the calves in the hospital pen last.
• Meticulous attention to hygiene is critical.  All utensils used for feeding calves and storing milk should be thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis.  Utensils used with sick calves should not be used for healthy calves.
• Avoid mixing calves of different ages.  Use an all in/all out system.
• Clean (with an effective, safe and appropriate disinfectant) spraying the pens on a weekly basis and/or spell pens between batches of calves.
• Provide clean, fresh drinking water in drinkers that cannot become contaminated with faeces.
• Handling of CMR and provision of high quality compound feed and roughage is important.
• Provision of appropriate housing.
• Clean, new bedding annually.
• Vaccines are available for some pathogens  – discuss with your vet


An oesophageal feeder is a long flexible, plastic tube that screws onto a larger plastic container that holds the electrolytes. Prior to passing the feeder, always make sure the probe and the container are thoroughly clean (wash it after each use so it is clean for the next time).  When administering the electrolyte fluid make sure it is at body temperature 35-40 degrees.
Position the calf so that it is either standing or sitting up on its chest.
Gently lift the animals head up to insert the tube.  If the calf struggles, lift the front end up so it is sitting on its haunches; you can restrain the calf easily that way while you lift its head to insert the tube. If the calf  is standing, back it into a corner (or have someone hold its back end), step over its back so you can hold the head and neck between your legs, and pull the head up with one hand under the lower jaw—so you can insert the tube with your other hand.
Gently put the tube into the side of the mouth. This is easier (and easier on the calf) than trying to force it into the front. Then aim it straight and slide it over the tongue to the back of the mouth and into the throat. The calf should swallow it as you move it back and forth and apply gentle pressure. Make sure the tube is not forced into the windpipe; the calf must be given a chance to swallow as it is pushed down. Stop pushing for an instant and place your fingers on the outside of the neck (front of the throat), to determine where the tube is going. You can feel or see the bulb end of the tube slip down the throat and into the oesophagus.
If you can see or feel the bulb (above the windpipe), you know it’s in the proper place and it’s safe to continue pushing the tube farther down. If you can’t see or feel it, or the calf is coughing, or there are puffs of air coming out your end, it’s in his windpipe; you must take it out and start over. Be sure it’s in the oesophagus and fully inserted (the bulb down close to the stomach) before you tip up the container or release the fluid into the tube. Hold the calf so it can’t struggle—or the tube may come partway out and allow fluid to get into the windpipe.  Once positioned, the container can be lifted and the entire contents can be allowed to drain into the rumen.