Management of Bovine Neonatal Diarrhea

Crystal Riczu: , March 2013

Bovine neonatal diarrhea (scours) is the increased frequency, quantity, and liquid content of feces with or without blood or mucous. It is an important cause of death in milk fed calves that has huge financial implications for producers in terms of increased labour, veterinary/drug bills, and reduced lifetime production of that animal.


The cause of calf diarrhea is often multifactorial, with  more than one agent involved, including: viruses (rotavirus, coronavirus, BVDV), bacteria (E-coli, salmonella), parasites (coccidian, cryptosporidium), nutritional stress (overfeeding, irregular feeding, changing milk replacer concentration, incorrect milk temperature, or the higher risk of scours being reared on milk replacer rather than whole milk), and environmental stress factors (cold damp, draughty humid calf sheds, overcrowding, weather changes).


In the days before a calf breaks with scours, the calf may have a dry muzzle with thick mucous from the nostrils, tendency to lie down, refusing to drink milk, very thick firm feces, and a fever. Once the calf has diarrhea (bright yellow to white feces), there is increased loss of water and electrolytes in the feces and due to decreased milk intake. If the calf is able to drink  more than they lose, they may continue to suck, stand, and remain fairly bright. If their losses exceed their intake, they can become systemically dehydrated (sunken eyes or prolonged skin tent over eyelids or mid neck) and/or develop metabolic acidosis (weak, depressed, loose suckle reflex, stagger and look drunk, progressing to recumbent, coma, and death). The calf may also lose weight, become hypoglycaemic (negative energy balance) or hypothermic. It is important to consult with your veterinarian as the calf may have other infections going on at the same time such as pneumonia (coughing, difficulty breathing), septic joints (distended warm joints, lameness), and navel ill (painful swollen wet navel) which may require further treatment.




1. Emergency calf stabilization

Provide sufficient liquid and electrolytes to fix the dehydration and metabolic acidosis:

  • Scours and Acidotic but not Dehydrated:
    • If weak and depressed: Give oral electrolytes (Revibe) 2 litres twice a day for 1-2 days
    • If also staggering: Add 1 tablespoon baking soda to the oral fluids
  • Scours and Dehydrated, but not Acidotic:
    • If still able to nurse: Give oral electrolytes – 2 liters twice a day for the first 2-3 days then reduce to 2 liters once a day until manure obtains a pasty consistency
    • If able to stand but unwilling to nurse: Give oral electrolytes 3-4 times daily for the first 2-3 days or until able to nurse.
  • Scours, Dehydrated and Acidotic:
    • If at ANY TIME the calf becomes very depressed, unable to stand or nurse, flat, non-responsive  CALL the veterinarian, the calf needs EMERGENCY IV FLUID THERAPY until it is able to nurse at which time it will be switched to oral electrolytes

2. Supply additional sources of energy: Milk is the best source of energy for calves (better than milk replacer) and should be provided in frequent small feedings between oral electrolyte treatments as milk should never be withdrawn for more than 24 hours in a calf. If the calf is severely hypoglycemic it may need to go on IV dextrose to counteract the negative energy balance.  It is also important to keep the calf as warm and dry as possible.

3. Diagnose and treat the specific cause of the scours Due to the multiple potential causes of scours in calves, contact your veterinarian to discuss your particular case on your farm. They will work with you to diagnose the appropriate cause and recommend further treatment (antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, nutrition changes) and management strategies specific to your case.




  • Quickly respond to early symptoms of scours, isolate and treat sick calves, and determine and address the cause as soon as possible as calves with diarrhea are a major source of environmental contamination and can quickly increase the amount of infectious agents in that area leading to a herd outbreak.
  • Provide adequate nutrition, reduce stress, and vaccinate the cow against scours (ScourBos) to best ensure the cow produces high quality colostrum as the calves rely on passive transfer of immunity from the colostrum to protect against infections. Alternatively the calf may also be vaccinated immediately after birth (Safeguard), but remember vaccinations are not 100% effective against scours due to their multifactorial causes.
  • Ensure the calf receives adequate amounts of colostrum to ingest 100g of immunoglobulins (antibodies). An average calf (90-100lb) needs to be fed 2L fresh colostrum within 6 hours of birth, dairy and Simmental breeds require 4L colostrum to ingest 100g immunoglobulins.
  • Maintain strict hygiene by cleaning and sterilizing feeding utensils and disinfect rearing facilities.
  • Minimize stress in routine management practices including transport, dehorning, and castration.
  • Segregate calving into different groups by time and calf age (as there are particular risk factors for the various calf ages) and move un-calved cows to new calving pastures.
  •  Ensure a warm, clean, dry, non-drafty environment for the calves. Ideally you want 4-6 inches dry bedding pack or a minimum of 40 lbs straw bedding/head/week to control contamination within the calf shelters and on the cow udder.


Remember, some of the agents that cause scours in calves can also cause disease in humans (fever, diarrhea, vomiting). Always protect yourself by wearing gloves, using separate clothes when handling sick calves, and always washing your hands.  If you or co-worker becomes ill and goes to the doctor, be sure to tell the doctor of the type of farm you are working on and that there are calves with diarrhea on the farm so they can be sure to provide the proper diagnosis and treatment for your case.




Smith, G. Practical Options for managing diarrhea in beef calves. North Carolina State University

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