Healthy calves during calving is always a producer’s number one priority. An aggressive, proactive approach to neonatal disease help ensure calves are vigorous and can enjoy beautiful spring days.

There are two major things affecting area cattle producers right now: calving season and COVID-19. One may think there’s not much of a linear connection between the two, but thanks to social media memes, there has been generated speculation.

When COVID-19 first hit the United States, social media blew up with a meme picturing a bottle of ScourGuard vaccine. The meme quipped sayings like, “cattle producers have been vaccinating for coronavirus for years.”

At first glance, the social media ploy struck people as either funny or potentially true, but with a little google research and quick talk with the local veterinarian, the meme becomes totally debunked.

“The coronavirus that effects calves and causes scours is different than the coronavirus going around, so vaccinating yourself or having been vaccinated is not going to protect you. There are a lot of different kinds of coronavirus out there,” said Dr. Perrie Neal, DVM.

Like the word “coronavirus,” scours also is a general term which encompasses many different neonatal intestinal diseases that affect calves. The specific illnesses and their causes may lead to different symptoms and therefore require different treatment approaches. There is no cure all for scours.

Neal points out there are three major causes for scours in calves: bacterial, viral and protozoa. Common bacterial caused scours include E. coli and salmonella. Common viral stemmed sours are rotavirus and coronavirus, while protozoan caused scours include illnesses such as coccidiosis and cryptosporidium. Of course there are other diseases that fit in those categories, but the ones listed tend to be the most common, especially throughout the region.

Symptomatically, scours can be all over the board. Loose, watery and often discolored manure is a strong indicator, but not always. Sometimes the calves may be listless and not sucking as they should. Kicking at their belly and straining are also signs of scours. In some instances, limited outward symptoms may appear and sudden death just occurs. Additionally, the age of the calf can play in. Some illnesses like E. coli affect calves within the first 24 hours of age, while coccidiosis is most common in calves three weeks or older.

“If you have scours and you call your vet, we typically start asking specific questions because that helps us narrow down what the cause could be,” Neal stated.

The first step to treating scours, regardless of the cause, is generally the same. Neal emphasized addressing the calf’s dehydration right off the bat is imperative. Scours diseases cause damage to a calf’s intestines, making it hard for them to absorb nutrients. That coupled with the fact that calves often don’t nurse as much when they are sick and that can lead them to become dehydrated.

It is commonplace to give milk and electrolytes to a dehydrated calf, but it is important to follow the label when administering electrolytes. Mixing electrolytes with milk may worsen the diarrhea, so it is generally recommended to avoid mixing the two together unless stated on the label.

 “Electrolytes have bi-carbs in it so that is really basic. Milk needs an acidic environment found in the calf’s abomasum to form that curd. If you mix electrolytes and milk you basically make the diarrhea worse because that calf can’t break down the milk the way their body was intended to so they don’t absorb the nutrients,” explained Neal.

There are differing opinions whether electrolytes or milk should be given first. Regardless, if the label advises to not mix the two, they should be given separately about two hours apart.

From there, treatment approaches split. If it’s a bacterial caused scours, a shot of an antibiotic will be helpful. Antibiotics can be given if its viral caused, but Neal explains, the antibiotic does not treat the virus. Instead, it helps with a secondary bloodstream infection that can form after viral scours.

“The two common viruses are rota and coronavirus. They damage the intestinal lining and it results in what is called a leaky gut. Bacteria will then move across the intestinal lining and get into the bloodstream causing septicemia,” Neal explained.

Coronavirus in calves may not be zoonotic, but there are strains of scours that are. For example, E. coli, salmonella and cryptosporidium can transfer from animal to human. Because of this, Neal warns that hygiene and proper doctoring practices are crucial to ensure the illness doesn’t transfer to humans or other healthy animals.

“Try to always handle relatively healthy animals first and then handle your sick animals and try to wash your hands and equipment with warm, soapy water,” she added.

In general there are some overall herd management practices that may work to mitigate the effect of scours, as well. Spreading cows out for calving, rotating pastures and bunching calves together into similar age groups are just a few examples. It’s also a good rule of thumb to discuss vaccination programs with your veterinarian, especially if scours is becoming a repeated issue year-after-year.

No matter what, when dealing with scours Neal says communication with your herd veterinarian is crucial. A veterinarian’s expertise can help producers narrow down the symptoms for a more targeted treatment plan. Additionally, veterinarians are often the most up-to-date on what is happening with herds in their service area.

“Don’t be afraid to call your vet. If you think it’s a problem, they’ll figure out what needs to be done,” Neal concluded.

Scours can be a rapid spreading, economically trying illness in calves. Being proactive is always a good practice.