Previous iGrow articles have addressed prevention and identification of calf scours. Despite their best efforts at prevention, many producers still encounter cases of diarrhea in their calves and need to consider proper methods of treatment. While this article addresses general forms of assessment and treatment, communication and consultation with a veterinarian is a critical first step in assuring that a calf suffering from scours gets the best treatment possible.
First, keep in mind that any calf experiencing diarrhea (for practical purposes, we can consider anything runnier than pancake batter to be “diarrhea”) can benefit from supplemental fluids and electrolytes. It’s the level of dehydration that the diarrhea is causing for the calf that determines 1) how much fluid the calf needs, and 2) how fast he should get the fluids (oral or intravenous).
The level of dehydration in a calf can be reliably assessed in two ways: skin tenting and eyeball recession into the eye socket. To evaluate skin tenting in a calf, pinch up a fold of loose skin in the neck area. The length of time it takes for the skin to drop back down to the neck help indicates the level of dehydration. In a well-hydrated calf, the skin will immediately drop back down to the neck. Dehydration results in longer time intervals for this to happen: 1-3 seconds in a mildly dehydrated calf, and over 10 seconds in a severely dehydrated calf.
Another method of assessing calf hydration is how “sunken” the calf’s eyes are in relation to the eye sockets. The fat pad in back of the eye shrinks and the eyeball passively recesses back into the socket in response to low body fluid levels. In a mildly dehydrated calf, the eyeball may be separated from the eyelid by 2-4 mm. In a severely dehydrated calf, this distance may be 8-12 mm.
For a scouring calf that is alert, standing, moving normally, has a skin "tent" for 3 seconds or less, and has 2-4 mm or less of eyeball recession; a single oral treatment of 2 quarts of an electrolyte solution is indicated. This calf should still be allowed to nurse and should be closely monitored. Young scouring calves still need nutrients in order to support body functions: research shows that continued feeding does not prolong or worsen diarrhea.
On the other hand, a severely dehydrated calf that is very weak or unable to stand, has a skin “tent” of 5 seconds or more, and has more than 6 mm of eyeball recession is a candidate for intravenous fluids. This is an emergency situation in which the calf should be presented to a veterinarian for treatment. The intestine of a calf in this situation is not likely able to absorb fluids and electrolytes, at least not quickly enough to support vital body functions.