By Calf Health Specialist Andre Teixeira, DVM, PhD, Veterinary Affairs Director, Jaguar Health

Part 3 in a 3-part series on diarrhea and dehydration in dairy & beef calves

The morbidity and mortality resulting from calf diarrhea are well documented. Calves that have serious episodes of diarrhea can be negatively affected for the rest of their lives. In recent years, in fact, researchers have shown that calf diarrhea significantly impacts the future health and productivity of the calf, heifer and adult cow. Regardless of the cause, action should be taken quickly, especially if there is an outbreak across the herd, because progression of diarrhea can be rapid.

Since various pathogens or factors cause diarrhea in calves, laboratory testing is necessary for accurate diagnosis of the problem. Your veterinarian can run diagnostic tests to determine the causative agent, and that information will help you and your veterinarian decide on the best intervention strategies.

Many producers do not record data regarding diarrhea events, the administration of electrolytes, or clinical signs. The severity of a case of diarrhea may be scored using the University of Wisconsin Calf Health Scoring chart. This scoring information will be helpful to your veterinarian if she or he cannot be present at the farm, will help you determine the need for any action, and will also help tell you the effects of any intervention. Keeping track of this data, along with vaccination records, will help keep calf diarrhea and dehydration top of mind and likely lead to a better understanding of the prevention, treatment, and long term consequences of the condition.

When diarrhea occurs, the two cornerstones of therapy are maintaining hydration status and treating underlying infections. The combination of decreased fluid intake and increased fluid loss can rapidly lead to dehydration, and fluids and electrolytes should therefore be replaced orally.

There are many anti-diarrheal products on the market. Most of these are available over the counter, which means you do not need a prescription to buy them, although it’s always advisable to consult your veterinarian about what is best for your calves based on the suspected or confirmed cause of the diarrhea.

Practical experience and research reveal that healthy calves make healthier, happier and more productive cows. The economic effects of diarrhea—including unnecessary early deaths, delayed weaning, decreased lifetime milk output, and decreased weight gain—are far reaching. Persistent diarrhea has significant negative effects not only on the herd—it also increases labor for farm employees and care-related expenses.

I hope the information I’ve presented is helpful to you and any calves in your care, and please be sure to consult your veterinarian whenever you are involved in the prevention, diagnosis or treatment of calf diarrhea.