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Scouring calves need fluids, fast

Scouring calves can go downhill quickly. Act fast to save a calf.

Calving time means the potential for scours. In fact, gut infections and the resulting diarrhea and electrolyte imbalances the scours produce is the leading cause of death in very young calves.

But proactive support can save calves. That means getting fluids into a scouring calf, fast. Most producers know how to use an esophageal feeder for giving fluids and some use a nasogastric tube.  These are quick and easy ways to get electrolyte fluids into the calf and a safe way to do it if you know how.

“If the calf still has a suckle reflex (able to suck on your finger) we can use the esophageal feeder,” says Geof Smith, with the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University. A person just needs to be careful and slow when putting the probe down the throat, making sure it goes down the esophagus and not into the trachea (windpipe). 

Most problems occur when the probe is rammed down quickly. Because of the ball on the end, the probe is not supposed to be able to go into the trachea, but you should always check by palpating the neck. “Make sure you can feel two tubes; you should be able to feel the plastic tube separately from the trachea. Once you get the probe safely down the esophagus you can administer the electrolyte fluid,” Smith says.

Once the calf has been rehydrated, should you turn it back out with the cow? In years past, veterinarians recommended holding scouring calves off milk for 24 hours, simply feeding electrolyte solutions, but today that is no longer advised.

“The old philosophy was that milk would likely make the diarrhea worse, but more recent research refutes this,” says Derek Foster, professor of ruminant medicine, North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “Milk helps the calf maintain strength and body weight while recovering. Calves held off milk tend to lose weight. We prefer to keep them on milk as long as they are up and able to nurse the cow.”

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