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How Calf Age Can Help You Decide On How To Treat Scours

One of the most common questions we get is “what is the best treatment for calves with scours?” And the first question I usually ask is “how old is the calf when it first starts to scour?” Without sending a fecal sample to the lab, this provides the most valuable information about what the likely cause of the diarrhea is, which dictates what the ideal treatment should be. 


First things first, this newsletter is focusing on targeted treatment of calves already scouring. We can all agree that prevention is the best medicine, and there are many areas of dry cow, calving and calf management that can be fine-tuned to prevent calf scours from happening in the first place. Working with your herd health vet is important to address a new or ongoing issue with calf scours. As always, good colostrum management and calving hygiene goes a long way towards improving things.

Secondly, identifying the causative pathogen is very important. Getting fresh, uncontaminated (not scooped up with a bunch of bedding) fecal samples from ideally multiple untreated calves to send to the lab for testing is the best thing to do to help come up with a targeted plan for managing calf scours. The problem is, it can take several days to get results back, days that you may not be able to afford to lose if you are losing calves. Initiating fecal testing early in the course of an outbreak is best, while at the same time consulting with your veterinarian on treatment to keep calves going until you get results back. 


Now on to calf age. The most common pathogens for calf scours are: E. coli, coronavirus, rotavirus, and cryptosporidium. Less commonly, salmonella and clostridium perfringens can cause issues, as well as coccidia in older calves, however we usually don’t treat for these causes without a lab diagnosis. Let’s focus on the big 4 and at what time they cause problems. 


So let’s consider proper treatment for:

A calf scouring <7 days of age

  • Calves scouring at a very early age are likely scouring due to E. coli (bacterial cause). 

  • Antibiotics USUALLY are appropriate in this case. Let’s break it down:

    • If the calf is drinking most of its milk and has no fever, antibiotics are not necessary

    • If the calf is lethargic, fevered, or has blood in the manure - antibiotics are indicated in this case.

      • Use systemic antibiotics that target E. coli (like Trimidox), or an oral antibiotic (Calfspan boluses).

  • Metacam or flunazine/Banamine is also a good idea, since it brings down fever and reduces inflammation from disease. 

  • Other supportive treatments are always indicated: oral electrolytes spaced out from milk feedings, fluids either IV or under the skin depending on degree of dehydration, pepto bismol or kaolin orally, probiotics to encourage healthy gut microflora.


A calf scouring >7 days of age:

  • Calves scouring at over a week of age are likely infected with crypto (a parasite) or one of the viruses. 

  • Metacam or Flunazine/Banamine is the most important treatment - it brings down fever and inflammation and reduces the pain associated with scours. 

  • Other supportive treatments, like pepto bismol/kaolin, probiotics, and oral electrolytes or other fluids are indicated. 

  • Antibiotics are NOT indicated for these calves, UNLESS the calf is showing signs of depression or lethargy (ie: do not want to get up or are very reluctant to get up, poor suckle reflex) - these calves are severely affected and likely have some bacteria leaking from the gut into the bloodstream. If this is the case, IM trimidox/borgal is indicated.

On a final note, this protocol is simplified, but a quick guideline to make some informed decisions. One of the key things is the prudent use of antibiotics for calf scours. Lots of research has shown that antibiotics tend to be overused when treating sick calves. Not only does this contribute to antibiotic resistance, but it can be detrimental to the future health of the calf. Studies have demonstrated that future growth and production is more negatively affected by antibiotic treatment for disease, than the disease event itself. Penicillin is not indicated for treatment of calf scours, unless directed by your vet for a specific reason (ie for clostridium perfringens), and the use of drugs like Resflor or Zeleris are also unnecessary if there are no signs of pneumonia or respiratory disease. If calves are not responding to treatments, further testing and investigation with your herd advisor is your best bet. 

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