Scours Identification and Prevention

by: Megan Miller, Professional Services Veterinarian, ANIMART

Scours is the primary cause of calf death before weaning. It can be a devastating disease infecting many animals, resulting in expensive treatments and negatively impacting the animal’s long-term health and performance.

Signs of scours include the following:

  • Diarrhea, sometimes with blood or mucus
  • Dehydration
  • Rough hair coat
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness
  • Sometimes fever
  • Death

Four main causes of scours

The four main causes of scours are bacterial, viral, protozoal and nutritional. If unable to perform a necropsy and lab samples, look for the following distinguishing features to help pinpoint the pathogens, especially when calves break with diarrhea. See Table.

Factors that contribute to scours

  1. Difficult calving
  2. Inadequate amounts of or poor-quality colostrum
  3. Dirty environment
  4. Weather extremes
Cause of scours Special agent Age of onset Distinguishing features
Bacterial E. coli Less than 5 days Septicemia (blood poisoning), secere diarrhea, sudden death
Salmonella Anytime Blood/mucous in feces, high fever, pneumonia
Viral Rotavirus 5 days – 2 weeks Often paired with another cause
Coronavirus 5 days – 3 weeks Sneezing, coughing, runny nose
Protozoal (parasites) Cryptosporidium 1 – 4 weeks Long-lasting diarrhea (over 2 weeks)
Coccidia 1 – 6 months Blood/mucous in feces, overcrowded, thing, unthrifty
Nutritional Poor quality milk replacer Anytime Otherwise healthy


Preventing scours

Prevention of scours can be difficult, but there are strategies that can optimize calf health.

  • Encourage the absorption of antibod­ies via the calf’s mouth and gut.
  • Administer antibodies through vaccination of the cow so the cow’s colostrum is full of anti­bodies.
  • Feed the calf high-quality colostrum or colostrum replacer (containing over 150 grams of immunoglobulin G) within the first 12 hours of life, when the calf’s ability to absorb antibodies is at its highest
  • Consider using products that supply antibodies to the calf, helping it fight off bacteria, viruses and toxins.
  • Sanitation is the other means to prevent scours. Remember, a calf explores its environment with its tongue, and the causative agents of scours are contracted orally. Investigate the following areas of your operation:
    • Calving pen
    • Colostrum milking buckets/hoses
    • Esophageal feeders
    • Bottles and nipples
    • Feeding buckets
    • Hutches and pens


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