Cow Scours: Causes, Treatment and Prevention

Cow scours is another name for cattle diarrhea and is a disease mainly spread by fecal-oral contact. Fluid therapy with water and electrolytes can help treat young calves who succumb to this disease.

Cow scours is a common major predicament for most cattle operations worldwide at homesteading, small-scale, and even large-scale farms because of its complexity.

Since eradicating the disease is merely a pipe dream, you can only hope to contain it on your farm through a multi-pronged approach for its prevention and treatment.

What Are Cow Scours?

Cow scours is another name for cattle diarrhea, a common multifactorial bovine disease characterized by inflammation of the intestinal tract (enteritis) that reduces the animal’s ability to digest and absorb nutrients properly.

The major symptoms, signs, and implications of cattle scours include:

  • Watery stool that may have mucus. It may also have blood in some instances.
  • Loss of appetite
  • Reduced milk production in lactating cows
  • Poor body condition and general weakness
  • Weight loss
  • Fatalities, if not treated in good time
  • Depression
  • Sunken eyes
  • Inability to stand

Cow scours affects both adult cattle and younger cattle, hence the name. However, young calves are at higher risk of contracting the disease within the first few days after birth up to one month of life.

When present in young calves, the disease is called calf scours. This article will focus more on calf scours since it’s the most prevalent form of cattle diarrhea and a significant threat to cattle operations due to the reduction of replacement animals.

Common Causes

As mentioned, cattle scours is a multifactorial disease in that it is caused by several factors, some of which may be present in combination in sick calves.

Young calves are more vulnerable than older calves because they have weaker or underdeveloped immune systems.

Older cattle, especially heifers and pregnant cows close to calving down, are massive carriers of the pathogens that cause calf scours.

Older cows shed these pathogens in feces, meaning the disease mainly spreads through fecal-oral contact, such as when a calf sucks an udder with the pathogens on it.

The causes of calf scours are split into two:

  • Non-infectious causes
  • Infectious causes

Non-infectious Causes

The non-infectious causes of scours in calves include:

  • Poor feeding practices like overfeeding, underfeeding, irregular feeding, feeding calves with indigestible items such as table sugar and molasses, and incorrect milk/milk replacer temperature
  • Overcrowding
  • Underfeeding dams in the last trimester
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Not all the food material will be digested when you overfeed a calf with fresh milk, colostrum, or milk replacer. The indigested material will sit in the stomach, potentially causing problems and requiring expulsion.

An underfed calf lacks the vital energy required for powering the immune system, leaving it vulnerable to diseases.

For example, a calf’s immunity will be compromised if you don’t give her about four quarts of colostrum in the first two hours of birth.

The longer the calf stays before taking colostrum after birth, the weaker her ability to absorb the antibodies or immunoglobulins. Each calf should have the first colostrum within 24 hours at the latest. Even so, her immunity may be compromised for life.

Feeding your calf irregularly causes her to develop stress and acidosis, conditions that predispose the animal to infection from the hard-to-eliminate pathogens shed in the barns or pastures by adult cattle and infected calves.

The milk, replacer, or colostrum must be fed to the calf at the right temperature, especially if warm water is used. The best practice will be to offer the feed at the calf’s body temperature.

Overcrowding dairy or beef calves and adult cattle provides ground for the multiplication of scours-causing pathogens.

Infectious Causes

The infectious causes of baby calf scours include:

These infectious agents disrupt the normal flora of the calf’s small intestines and can be fatal if not treated correctly and in good time.

Scours caused by cryptosporidia are extremely painful for calves, while Bovine Virus Diarrhea (BVD) scours last for a long time. Cryptosporidia protozoa also live in the environment for a very long time.

Effective Treatment

No single approach is 100% effective against cow scours. Treatment usually requires a multifrontal approach, even when a specific causal factor has been conclusively identified after an elaborate diagnosis.

Scours treatment may be either medical or managerial.

Fluid Therapy For Calf Scours

The best thing you can do for a scouring calf is fluid therapy with water and electrolytes to restore the delicate acid-base balance equilibrium and rehydrate her. Dehydration of about 12% is the leading cause of death in scouring calves.

The following fluid therapy options suffice:

  • Give water and electrolyte solutions at about 2-8 liters daily, depending on the calf’s size and scours intensity. Be sure to mix the electrolyte as per the indicated instructions. Overly concentrated electrolytes may precipitate more calf diarrhea.
  • Feed electrolytes intravenously or orally but not simultaneously as milk replacers.
  • If no electrolytes are available, you can make the two solutions detailed below:One, make a solution of 1 teaspoon of salt, 8 ounces of 50% dextrose or 8 ounces of light Karo syrup (avoid using sugar), and 1 tablespoon of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate). Mix the ingredients with warm water to make 1 gallon of solution. Feed 1 quart of the solution orally to the calf every 3-4 hours for up to 24-48 hours. Avoid milk and replacers at this time to avoid providing a breeding ground for bacteria like E. coli. Alternatively, mix 1 can of beef consomme, 1 ounce of fruit pectin, 2 teaspoons of baking soda, 1 teaspoon of lite salt (low sodium salt), and enough warm water to make 2 quarts of the solution. Feed 1 quart orally at 4-6 hour intervals.
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Other Treatments For Baby calf Scours

  • Treat with antibiotics orally or through injections (only when lab tests single out bacterial infection.)
  • Provide intestinal protectants like Kaolin, Kaopectate, or Pepto-bismal
  • Provide thermal support to reduce the chances of excessive cold stress or hypothermia. Provide dry, adequate-depth bedding and heat from heat lamps or blankets if necessary. Shelter the calf from snow, rain, and wind.
  • Treat pain with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory painkillers to eliminate discomfort. (This should be done by a vet as the drugs may have side effects.)
  • Continue nursing or bottle feeding the calf to provide constant nutritional value from the mother’s milk to boost the immune system through energy provision.
  • Your vet may provide probiotics (beneficial live bacterial cultures) from plain yogurt or commercial cultures if necessary.
  • Some farmers swear by giving diarrheic calves raw eggs (best if self-raised). Add a beaten egg to the milk to boost the protein content to make the stool firmer. You can also feed the egg separately but not at the same time as the electrolytes. Feed one egg daily until the sick calf recovers.

Note 1: Scour pills, oral antibiotics, and sulfas may not be beneficial. You should stop offering them to the calf if scours don’t stop within 2-3 days of use. Overusing them may lead to overpopulation of molds, yeasts, or resistant bacteria in the calf’s gut.

Note 2: If the scours result from a salmonellosis outbreak (salmonella scours), treating with antibiotics may lead to the extreme release of endotoxins. You may have to rely on fluid therapy only.

How To Prevent Cow Scours

Similar to its treatment, calf scours prevention requires a multifarious approach. It may be medical or managerial. Here’s how to reduce incidences of calf scours:

1. Ensure Continous Animal Health

Heifers and cows close to calving down should be well-fed with energy, protein, and vitamins A and E (Vitamin A deficiency causes calf scours).

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Other cattle in the herd should also be healthy enough to reduce the load of scours-causing pathogens shed in the barns or pasture paddocks.

2. Good Calf Nutrition Management Practices

Ensure calves feed on a balanced diet for their age. Use milk replacers if colostrum is not available.

3. Good Colostrum Management

Feed the calf with 4 quarts of colostrum within 2 hours of birth. Use colostrum you may have kept frozen or buy from other cattle farms if the dam doesn’t produce enough for the newborn calf.

4. Cleanliness, Sanitization, and Ventilation

The barns and pasture areas should be as clean as possible at all times. The calving area must be clean and free of mud.

Clean the calving pastures or barns after each calving season to remove fecal matter. Apply lime to the affected areas and then clean them again with disinfectant.

5. Early Vaccination Programs

Both cows and newborn calves should be vaccinated. Vaccinate in-calf cows against E.coli, bovine coronavirus, and rotavirus about 12 to 3 weeks before parturition. Salmonella vaccines against scours, such as the Salmonella K-99 vaccine, are available.

Vaccinating pregnant cows will ensure the colostrum will have antibodies against specific scours-causing pathogens to be taken up by the calf.

6. Good Biosecurity Measures

Have a functional disinfectant footbath at the entry point to the cattle barns or affected area. Changing clothes, gloves, and boots is also a beneficial biosafety protocol.

7. Proper and Adequate Housing

Keeps same age-group calves (born within 45-60 days of each other) together to reduce the propagation of pathogens among calves of different age groups. Better still, house each calf separately if possible.

Designate a separate calving area where cattle traffic is low to calving mothers. Clean the area after each calving. If possible, leave the area unused for one season.

Move nursing mothers and their newborn calves to a designated nursing area away from the calving area and other cattle.

8. Quarantine Protocols

Always separate affected mothers and calves from the rest of the herd, separately if possible. Commercial beef cattle and cow-calf operations face higher risks of scours and low numbers of healthy calves for herd replacement if mortalities from scours are high.

Other Calf Scours Prevention Methods

  • Injecting calves with vitamin A
  • Avoiding bringing new cattle to the farm near or during the calving season
  • Protect yourself from catching intestinal diseases since some of the pathogens that cause cow scours, such as salmonella, may also infect exposed humans. Wash your hands and skin thoroughly after contact with infected animals.
  • Navel dipping
  • Ask different people to care for the diseased animals and another separate group for the healthy ones.
  • Some farmers swear they control scours successfully by adding one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to the milk of each calf twice a day at each feeding. The organic acids in the vinegar regulate stomach pH to reduce the growth of E.coli and other rogue bacteria. The acids cause curdling in the milk, but the calves still consume it. Farmers using this remedy say that even if some calves develop scours, it only takes one or two days to cure.


Alex grew up in a rural area with chickens, cows, goats, and rabbits. He has always enjoyed waking up at 6 am to tend to his flock and vegetable garden. He bought his first cow at 25 and named her "104". In 2021, he set up an aquarium and now spends his lazy time watching his fish. He is happiest watching small animals and plants grow big, not to mention writing to share his farm-life experiences.

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