The Moos Room™

Calf Scours Treatment Decision Tree

Dr. Joe walks through how to treat scours in young calves (less than 21 days old). How to decide what to do and what not to do are on the docket, along with the usual soapbox moments.

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Hosted by members of the University of Minnesota Extension Beef and Dairy Teams, The Moos Room discusses relevant topics to help beef and dairy producers be more successful. The information is evidence-based and presented as an informal conversation between the hosts and guests.

Dr. Joe: Welcome to The Moos Room, everybody. It's Dr. Joe. I'm on my own again today. Just finished a tool that I've been excited to share with everyone. I've already been sharing it with everybody a little bit, but we have a calf scours treatment decision tree available. That's on our website. I will make sure I have the link in the show notes for you to access. Great tool, I think. Probably a little biased since I made it, but a big shout out to Eric Mousel for helping me with this and coming up with the idea to get this going. Be sure to check it out.
All right. We've had so many scours episodes. There's a lot. If you've been listening to us for a while, it's one of our earliest topics that we kept coming back to. Now, I think we've covered treatment a little bit, but I don't think we've specifically had an episode where we really nailed down what are we doing when we're treating scours and what should we be doing to do it most effectively.
Now, I really like this topic because it applies to both beef and dairy, and there's really not a huge difference in how we treat calves for scours between the two different groups. I love topics where we can talk about cattle. Beef, dairy, doesn't matter. Just anything that goes moo, this is what you do. I'll be sure to point out where there are differences, and most of it is just calf access. Can we get to that calf or not?
With dairy, I'm willing to be a little more conservative on some treatments because I know I'm coming back to that calf the next day. They're either group-housed or individually housed. I have access. They're not running away from me. I don't have to get on a four-wheeler and bulldog these calves. I don't have to be on a horse and try to rope them. They're available. There are some differences, but I'll make sure I point those out along the way.
As a refresher, we're going to talk about what causes calf scours. When I'm talking about calf scours for today, we're going to focus on that first 30 days of life or even the first 3 weeks of life. That's the most critical time. That's where we have most of our issues. That's when we can really definitively say these are the main problems, and we're not going to get overly complicated by adding coccidia into the mix, which has a 21ish-day lifecycle, meaning that coccidia really isn't an option for a diagnosis if we're under three weeks old, very unlikely because just of how long that lifecycle is.
What causes scours in that first three weeks of life? Very straightforward. You've got cryptosporidium, rotavirus, and coronavirus. Those are your main culprits, and they account for the vast majority of scours issues. This is a review if you've been listening for a while, but it's important to keep in mind, can E. coli, can salmonella, can other bacteria cause scours? Yes, but the majority of cases are caused by one of those three I just mentioned, cryptosporidium, rotavirus, or coronavirus.
That means that in many, many cases of scours, if we're talking about cryptosporidium, which is a parasite, rotavirus, which is a virus, or coronavirus, which is a virus, antibiotics might not be necessary because they're not going to do anything to treat a virus or a parasite. Now, I want to make this clear. There are scours cases that require antibiotics, but to make that decision, we use most often the clinical symptoms of that calf, how bad they look basically. In addition, we use temperature to decide whether or not we add antibiotics into the treatment plan.
If we're not using antibiotics, what are we using to treat these three major causes of scours? Well, most of it is supportive care. We're talking about making sure that calf is hydrated. That's number one. Then we talk about pain. Some of these scours cases are incredibly painful. If you've ever had crypto or cryptosporidium as a human, which you can get, it's a zoonotic disease, it hurts and it hurts bad. It's not very fun. Pain medication is a big piece of this because it puts that calf back on feed.
One more note before we get into the actual decision tree and how you make these decisions on what to give these calves, never, ever take away milk. Milk is a vital piece of a treatment plan. Everything that we do in terms of electrolytes or rehydrating this calf is in addition to normal milk feedings. That means that calf stays on mom, continues to nurse, and if they're not nursing, then we need to provide nutrition in addition to our treatment plan. On the dairy side, you're never pulling milk. Milk stays. Those calves need the calories. Beef, dairy, doesn't matter. They need the calories from that milk to power their immune system and make sure they can fight off these bugs. Do not pull milk.
As a reminder, if you'd like to send me a scathing rebuttal on this topic, feel free, That's I lied to you. I'm sorry. There's one more statement. It's a veterinary statement. It's a little bit vague, but what I'm saying is that this protocol that's available online, what we're about to go through today, it is not a replacement for the advice of your veterinarian. They still know your system best. They're the best resource for you and your system. This is intended to start the conversation, give you a resource for what questions to ask, and to make sure that you have something you can follow that allows you to provide the best care for your calves.
I'm going to assume that you can identify scours correctly. That's a big piece of this. We've talked about that on this podcast before. Identifying scours correctly is a big deal. Scours calves tend to look, especially when they're pretty bad, tend to look like respiratory cases. They look like they're breathing hard and fast and a lot of extra effort, and that's because they are. They're trying to get rid of extra CO2 because they're trying to adjust their system because they're too acidic. They become acidotic and they're trying to get rid of CO2 because it's an acid.
Calves that are breathing hard or fast or with extra effort, not necessarily a respiratory case. Make sure you're looking and making sure that it's truly a respiratory case and not a scours case before you're just treating for a respiratory issue. Okay, enough soapbox. I'm going to assume you know this is a scours case. Where do we start? We start as simple as possible. Can the calf stand or not? If yes, we move on to the next diagnostic. If no, we know exactly what we need to do already. This calf can't stand, that's usually a hydration issue. We immediately go to IV fluids if that calf can't get up.
Now what fluids, that's for you to talk about with your vet, but lactated Ringer's or isotonic sodium chloride IV is the way to go. Now, if you can't get it IV, IV is definitely best, but if you can't get it IV, then subcutaneously or just under the skin is another option. Now, this is usually when some of my veterinary friends comment and say, "Well, what about hypertonic fluids?" Well, hypertonic fluids are designed to use osmotic pressure to pull fluids out of the body into the bloodstream.
Now, when you're already dehydrated, that is a very dangerous thing to do. For me, I'm not going to recommend that a producer give calves hypertonic fluids because it can be very dangerous and you can kill that calf pretty quickly if you don't know what you're doing. One thing to think about, if you're going to be IVing fluids, or even if you're going to be putting them sub-Q, most often these calves are in trouble and they're cold, so warming up those fluids is a good idea.
Getting those fluids warm enough to where they're not going to shock that calf and make it colder when you give them, especially if you're giving them quite fast, which we often do, we give them quite fast because we're in a hurry and we're trying to just get to the next deal, it's a good idea to make sure they're warm first. We're going to continue down this path of this animal that can't stand. I've got an animal that cannot stand up. We've given it IV fluids. Now I'm going to see if I have a suckle reflex or not.
If I have a suckle reflex, yes, then we move on to electrolytes, an NSAID, or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, a long-acting antibiotic that usually we're trying to find an antibiotic that spares gut microbiome as much as possible, then we're going to reevaluate in two hours. I've given the IV fluids, the calf, yes, does have a suckle reflex. I give my electrolytes orally, my NSAID, my long-acting antibiotic, and I come back in two hours and I reassess and I start right back at the top of the chart.
Same calf, we've given the IV fluids, but no, we do not have a suckle reflex. Well, now we're going to move on to temperature. That's the next criteria. No suckle reflex. The calf was down when we started. Now what is our temp? Is it at least 101? Basically, I'm asking, is the calf at a normal body temperature or is it too low? We've established that the calf does not have a suckle reflex. That should tell you right away, we're not going to bottle-feed our electrolytes. Instead, we're going to tube the electrolytes. Either way, regardless of temperature, this calf is getting warm electrolytes. It's just going to have to be tubed.
Now, if the calf has a body temperature that is below 101, so it's cold, 101 Fahrenheit, in addition to tubing the electrolytes, we're going to give an NSAID, use the long-acting antibiotic, and that's when we introduce the calf warmer as well. I have mixed feelings about the calf warmers. I think they are a bottleneck for disease. They don't get cleaned well enough, especially depending on what they're made out of, but they are a necessary evil in my mind for certain calves. The goal is to never have a calf go in there because it is a bottleneck for disease and it can cause a lot of issues. For certain calves, if they're cold, it's winter, they got to go in.
Let's reset. We had a calf that can't stand. They got IV fluids. They do not have a suckle reflex. Now we already established that if they have a low body temperature or below 101 Fahrenheit, they go in the calf warmer, plus all of our normal things. Now, if they're the other way, if they do have at least 101 Fahrenheit, they're not cold, we just do all the same things. They just don't go in the calf warmer. We're tubing 2 quarts of high-quality warm electrolytes. We're giving an NSAID, we're giving the long-acting antibiotic, and then we're reevaluating in two hours. They're just not in the calf warmer during that time.
Hopefully, that makes sense. It's probably a little easier if you have the diagram to follow along, but I'm doing my best here with audio only. We've covered a calf that can't stand. What do we do? That's what we've done so far. Now we're going to start down the path of I get to this calf, I know they're in trouble, they've got scours, but they can stand up. They're standing at the time you find them. They have the ability to stand up if you push them because you found them lying down.
Again, the next question is, do they have a suckle reflex? Standing, yes. Do they have a suckle reflex? If the answer is no, we know they're not going to be able to be bottle-fed the electrolytes. We're tubing electrolytes. We know that, but we need to figure out if the calf is cold or not. We're back to body temperature above or below 101 Fahrenheit. Whether or not this calf is above or below 101 Fahrenheit, we are tubing 2 quarts of high-quality electrolytes. They're getting an NSAID, they're getting a long-acting antibiotic, and we're coming back in two hours to see what's going on. All that's changing is whether or not they go in the calf warmer.
Below 101, in the calf warmer after getting all those things. Above 101, not in the calf warmer after getting all those things. That covers standing but with no suckle reflex. Got that covered. We already did calf not able to stand. Got those two things done. Now we're looking at this calf that can stand and does have a suckle reflex. What do we do with that calf? Now this is where there's potentially a difference between dairy and beef, but we'll get into that in just a second. Standing, yes; suckle reflex, yes. Now we're going to bottle feed 2 quarts of high-quality warm electrolytes and give an NSAID.
If the calf has scours and you've identified that, but they are able to stand and they have a suckle reflex, we bottle-feed electrolytes and we give an NSAID. After that, whether or not we give antibiotics is dependent on calf temperature. Normal body temperature for a calf is 101 Fahrenheit to 103 Fahrenheit. I know the textbook is going to say 102.5 as the high end. I bump it to 103. I think that is just an easier number to remember, first of all, but also it does accommodate for when we get into fall calving or having a little hotter months or the sun being on these calves. I just like using 103 as my cutoff.
I don't know if I have a great evidence-based answer for why. I just think it's an easier number to remember and it accounts for some of our environmental conditions. Work with me. 101 to 103 Fahrenheit is normal body temp. If you take the body temp and it's between 101 and 103 and we're calling that normal, you're done. You've already bottle-fed the electrolytes and you've given an NSAID. Because there's no fever, there's no reason to give an antibiotic at this time.
Now, the exception is right here, dairy versus beef. With a dairy calf, this is always the rule because I know I'm coming back the next day and they're right there I can get to them at any time. With a beef calf, I am constantly trying to figure out am I going to be able to access this calf. How dangerous is mom plays a huge part of it. If she's really upset by what you're doing and how you're doing it and it's dangerous, that changes the game too.
If I'm pretty worried about a secondary infection and I know this calf is hard to catch and I am thinking that the temperature is approaching 103 or maybe it's even above 102.5, that antibiotic is going to get given, for sure. I'm going to give it to that beef calf that I can't catch and I'm going to have a hard time accessing and I'm a little worried about my safety because mom is not super happy with me. All of those things play into it. You just have to use your judgment on that. Talk to your veterinarian about it.
Sometimes with beef calves that are hard to catch, that don't have much access to, they're going to get an antibiotic just because I have them and I want to make sure I'm protecting them against a secondary infection. Now, what if the temperature is less than 101? We've talked about that already. We got a cold calf. They're able to stand. They do have a suckle reflex. We gave them 2 quarts of electrolytes. They bottle-fed those just fine. They got an NSAID, but their body temp is low. Now, low body temp can be a sign of a bacterial infection or septicemia. We're back to giving our antibiotic again. Because they're cold, they're likely going in that calf warmer.
That's up to your discretion on whether or not they go in there. If they're cold or given the antibiotic and they're going in the calf warmer, reevaluate in two hours. Now, if the calf has a fever, we're above 103. The calf can stand, yes, has a suckle reflex, yes, got electrolytes and an NSAID, but has a fever. We've done a lot, but we do need to add an antibiotic in that case because of the fever, we're worried about a secondary infection. Likely those secondary infections are bacterial. Our antibiotic is doing some good. They need to get that antibiotic. We're reevaluating in six hours and we're likely going to have to give electrolytes again.
Another thing about antibiotics and why we're giving them. We're giving antibiotics if there's a fever, yes. If that calf is down or has a lack of a suckle reflex, we're also giving antibiotics. The reason is that those calves are predisposed to a respiratory infection because they were so down and out from the scours problem. We're hedging our bets here and hoping that we're preventing that follow-up issue that was started by the scours event. That was a lot, I know it's hard to describe this diagram with audio only, so hopefully, you had a chance to go look at it and it makes a lot more sense now that you've seen the diagram itself and the flow chart, the decision tree.
Last thoughts before we wrap it up. Remember, we're reevaluating these calves a lot. When we reevaluate these calves every two hours, if they're down, or if they're up but they don't have a suckle reflex, we're reevaluating them every two hours. Calves that are down, calves that don't have a suckle reflex, or calves that are just pretty bad off but they are standing and they do have a suckle reflex, may or may not be getting their milk.
With beef calves especially, we need to figure out if they're nursing. Now you can lock them up close where you can observe them and make sure that calf has access to mom. Good way to do it. We need to ensure that calf is getting calories. They need calories from milk. All of these things we talked about today are in addition to providing calories. If the calf can't get them themselves, then we need to provide them. If the calf can't suckle, then we need to tube milk. In terms of how much to feed, if that calf is not nursing, we're going to steal recommendations from the dairy side right away. Age of calf plays into this a tiny bit, but not that much, really.
On the dairy side, we're looking for 3 quarts three times a day, or 4 quarts twice a day. Those become the recommendations to the beef side as well. We have the research on the dairy side to show that that's the calories they need. That's what we should be doing for these beef calves if they cannot nurse themselves. Now, if you're wondering in between, are they nursing, are they not? I'm pretty sure they are, but I don't know how much they're getting. We can still provide milk and make sure that calf is getting enough. You might be able to step it down if you're pretty sure that calf is nursing and feed 2 quarts twice a day in addition to them getting calories from mom.
Overall, there's a lot to think about here. I realize that doing this over audio is a little tough, but I think there are some good points that we've made along the way. Hopefully, you learn something from this. Please check out the show notes and find the link to the actual diagram, the decision tree that you can use in treating your calves that are scouring. We haven't even touched the topic of coccidiosis and how that plays in. Really, we're focusing on these calves that are less than 21 days old, potentially up to 30 days old, and then it gets a little more complicated because we have to throw coccidia into the mix.
Today, I think this is enough. As always, comments, questions, scathing rebuttals those go to That's Catch us on Twitter @UMNmoosroom and @UMNFarmSafety. Catch Bradley on Instagram @umnwcrocdairy. Thank you for listening, everybody. We'll catch you next week. Bye.
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