Scours in Calves: Here's What You Need to Know

by Caitlyn Andrews September 08, 2016

Scours and Calves Here's What You Need to Know

Calf scours is a common problem for producers, and can be fatal if not caught and treated in time. Calf scours can be a leading cause of financial loss to cow and calf producers. It is not a single disease, but a clinical sign associated with several diseases. Scours can be characterized by diarrhea that often leads to dehydration and even death.

We will discuss the symptoms, causes, prevention and treatment of calf scours in this post.

Symptoms of Calf Scours

Common signs of calf scours include:

  • Watery stool. May contain blood or mucus.
  • Dehydration that can result in a sunken-eyed appearance. Ribs, hips, and shoulders may become more prominent as dehydration becomes more severe.
  • Depression and a lost desire to nurse.
  • Weakness resulting in staggering or an inability to stand.

    Depending on the severity of the case and the cause of the scours, a calf may survive untreated for as little as 1 day or as long as 2 weeks. We'll discuss the different causes of calf scours in the next section.

    Causes of Calf Scours

    What causes scours in calves? There are multiple causes of scours that can be broken into 2 categories: 1) non-infectious and 2) infectious.

    Non-infectious causes of scours: These are usually referred to as predisposing or contributing factors. Efforts to prevent infectious scours are usually ineffective if contributing noninfectious factors are not considered in a prevention program. Noninfectious causes are typically gaps in herd management, such as inadequate nutrition of the pregnant dam, lack of attention or inadequate environment for the newborn calf.

    Infectious causes of scours: 

    1. Viral: Viruses such as rotavirus, coronavirus, BVD virus, IBR virus
    2. Bacterial: Examples include Escherichia coli, Salmonella spp., Clostridium perfringens
    3. Yeasts and molds: Sometimes associated with lesions in the stomach or intestines of scouring calves. Not usually the primary cause of scours, but a secondary cause. They are often the result of overuse of antibiotics and lack of treatment for dehydration.
    4. Protozoal: Cryptosporidium and coccidia

    Note: Some bacterial and protozoal pathogens are transmissible from cattle to humans. Hygiene and sanitation must be practiced when handling calves with scours.

    Most often, infectious scours are caused by either rotavirus, coronavirus or Cryptosporidium.

    How to Prevent Calf Scours

    Scours results from a combination of noninfectious and infectious factors. It is critical that you use more than one method to control the problem. Your prevention efforts should complement each other. Keep in mind that prevention should occur year-round, not just during the calving season.

    Newborn Calf- How to Prevent Scours

    To prevent calf scours, it is important that you implement a prevention program that addresses all sources of calf scours, not just one cause.


    Proper nutrition can help prevent calf scours. Noninfectious causes of scours are sometimes the result of inadequate nutrition of the pregnant dam. It is critical that cows maintain adequate protein, energy, and micronutrient nutrition during gestation. Poor nutrition can lead to poor quality and quantity of colostrum produced by the dam. Read more about the importance of colostrum in combating scours in this post by the Cattle Network.Be sure that all newborn calves receive colostrum. Calves should nurse or be given 2 quarts of

    Be sure that all newborn calves receive colostrum. Calves should nurse or be given 2 quarts of colostrum during the first 2 to 4 hours of life. A repeat feeding of the 2 quarts should be given 4 to 6 hours after. Antibodies in extra colostrum and transition milk can aid calves in overcoming viral infections. For more details on feeding colostrum to aid in the treatment of scours, see this article by the Dairy Herd Management.

    Environment and Sanitation

    Calves need a clean, dry environment to protect them from scours. Always maintain a clean calving area. Sanitation is just as important as the environment. Many farms clean and sanitize their pens and hutches, but often overlook the cattle panels used to restrain calves and bucket holders. These spots can be missed when cleaning. Power washing calf facilities is a great way to clean them up, but an important often missed step, is a final rinse. A final rinse or hand scrub can help rid the surfaces of feces that could contain Cryptosporidium. Overcrowding is also known to be a major contributor to calf scours. Keep this in mind for your calves' environment.


    Vaccination of the dam is an important preventative for scours. Immunize against scours-causing pathogens. While vaccination alone often isn’t enough to prevent scours, it can aid in your prevention program. Have your vet help you develop an annual vaccination program suited to your herd.

    Optimal prevention of calf scours requires a mix of sound genetic selection, pasture management, nutrition, sanitation, and immunization.

    Treating Calf Scours

    First, you should consult with your veterinarian if you have a calf or calves that are scouring. Your vet can help you determine the cause of the scours and help you decide on an appropriate course of action.

    When possible, isolate scouring calves and their dams from the rest of the herd. Regardless of the cause of scours, most treatment methods are similar. The primary concern should be correcting dehydration, acidosis and electrolyte loss. Antibiotic treatment for scours can be given with the treatment for dehydration. In the early stages of scours, simple fluids given by mouth can overcome dehydration. Fluid therapy can be administered orally or intravenously. Oral fluids used early in the scouring process are typically successful. Keep in mind that a 12% loss of fluids in calves usually will result in death.

    Many dehydrated calves will suffer from hypothermia. Provide an external source of heat, such as a warm barn or heat lamps, to calves with hypothermia during electrolyte or fluid treatment.

    The most important thing for treating calves with scours is to act fast. Scours is a preventable and treatable condition. Ignoring the noninfectious causes of scours can lead to infectious causes of calf scours. Left untreated, you risk losing the calf. Implement preventative measures, pay attention to newborn calves, and act quickly if they exhibit signs of scours.


    Dairy Herd: Scours Trifecta

    Cattle Network: Calf Scours Causes, Prevention, and Treatment

    VetMed: Calf Scours Course

    Veterinary Extension Colorado State: Calf Scours PDF

    NDSU: Calf Scours Causes, Prevention, Treatment

    Caitlyn Andrews
    Caitlyn Andrews


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