Calf diarrhea – What is happening inside the scouring calf?

A newly born healthy calf

A calf at risk for diarrhea

Today I want to tell a bit more about what is going on inside a calf when it is having scours, or diarrhea. This is important to know because when you understand the processes that are taking place inside the calf, you’ll know better how to respond the proper way.

Although the causes of calf scours can be very different, the body reacts most of the time in the same manner. If there is something in the digestive tract that doesn’t belong there, the body will try to flush it out of the system. This can be something like wrong kind of bacteria, viruses, parasites or bad digested feed.

This flushing might be a good thing, but at the same time it puts the calf at risk. Let me explain a bit more. The salivary glands in the mouth, the mucous membrane in the stomach, the liver and pancreas produce saliva which is used in the digestive process to break down food.

When diarrhea strikes the saliva is lost and the digestive process is interrupted. In addition, for flushing (diarrhea) the body uses its own available body fluids. Along with fluid loss it depletes the body also of important minerals, called electrolytes, needed for good health.

These electrolytes are: potassium, magnesium, chloride, sodium and calcium. Without these minerals the calf may feel weak, tired and depressed, has an abnormal heart rhythm, and becomes dehydrated. For these reasons it is important that the calf drinks plenty of fluids when it has a bout of diarrhea in order to restore both the fluid level as well as the electrolyte balance.

On top of that, other nutrients will mostly pass through the intestines without being absorbed into the calf’s system, causing the deterioration of the body condition. This loss of body condition is the very reason why it still is better to continue feeding calves milk and other feed.

When a calf is having scours the working of the digestive system is different from normal. This different working can cause some unwanted side effects, like stomach cramps, abdominal pain and gas forming.

Because of the rapid passing through of feeds and fluids, the walls of the digestive tract can get damaged. Bacteria, viruses and parasites can also cause these damages. This will be visible in the stools when it contains mucous, blood or pus.

Briefly summarized, when a calf is having scours it loses body fluids, electrolytes and body condition very rapidly. Besides that the digestive tract gets damaged and it gets stomach cramps, abdominal pain and gas forming.

So, to cure a scouring calf as quickly as possible, these issues should be addressed immediately. If you understand the importance of these measurements, you are more likely to take the necessary and proper steps to get your calf up and running in no time. More information you can find in the article about calf treatment & care.

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