Rapid response improves the recovery of scouring calves

Prompt treatment of dehydration caused by diarrhoea is essential in cases of neonatal calf scour, warned Norbrook veterinary adviser, Maura Langan.

According to the Regional Veterinary Labs, scour accounts for 28% of diagnosed conditions in calves up to one month old, making it the most frequent cause of death in this age group.

It can be caused by viruses, bacteria or parasites but the resulting dehydration and weight loss are the main reasons calves are slow to recover.

The financial costs incurred on farm can be substantial due to mortality, treatment costs and weight loss resulting in subsequent poor growth rates.

“Scouring calves lose more fluids than they’re taking in and this can quickly lead to dehydration,” said Maura.

Farmers will notice a dull, depressed animal, often with a ‘sunken eye’. The affected animal can deteriorate if not treated quickly because they have poorly developed fat stores.

Oral rehydration therapy (ORT) is the single most important therapeutic measure to be carried out to help correct the dehydration, acidosis and electrolyte imbalance that occurs in scouring calves.

Good-quality, commercially available ORT powders contain optimal levels of electrolytes, bicarbonates and glucose, but it is essential they are used correctly to ensure the best possible outcome.

Maura recommends that farmers follow a three-point treatment plan:

  1. Isolate the calf (or calves) at the first sign of scour as it may be shedding large numbers of infectious agents which could be transmitted to the rest of the herd;
  2. Administer ORT. Mix one sachet in 2L of water and give it at midday and repeat with another 2L dose at night, in addition to normal milk feed. Continue for 48 hours. Always follow the instructions and prepare the solution fresh for every feed, using clean buckets and whisks to reduce the spread of infection;
  3. It’s essential to continue to feed milk as it has two major benefits. Firstly, it provides the energy the calf needs to grow and gain weight and secondly, it contains the nutrients needed to aid the healing and recovery of the gut lining. Studies show that scouring calves that remain on milk gain the same weight as healthy calves.

“One way to reduce potential problems is to ensure every calf receives 3L of colostrum within two hours of birth.

“Calves are born without any immunity and rely on the passive transfer of antibodies from their mother’s milk in those first hours of life,” advised Maura.

“However, calf scour occurs under the strictest of management practices, so it’s a good idea to monitor the frequency of outbreaks.

“If you are concerned that your farm has a recurring problem, ask your vet to diagnose the pathogens that may be the cause,” concluded Maura.