Young animals: Calf problems (new)

Young animals: Calf problems (new)

Dirty calf tails sign of calf scours

(c) William Ayako, Kari

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The most common ailments of calves and young stock are diarrhea and pneumonia. Many diseases of newborn calves can be controlled with proper hygiene and health management.

Although calves will inevitably be exposed, minimizing risk factors will result in fewer infections and illness in calves.

Calf white scours / diarrhoea (calf enteritis)

Common names: Calf enteritis, Calf diarrhoea
Description: Management disease
Calf diarrhoea also called 'white scours' is a disease caused by bacteria present in the intestinal tract. It is very common in suckling calves during their first weeks after birth.
Calf diarrhoea is encouraged by late feeding of colostrum to the newborn calf, overcrowding of calves in pens, dirty environment and damp housing, poor hygiene in general and bad feeding practice particularly abrupt overfeeding with milk. (Colostrum is the first milk produced by the cow after delivery, the calf has to drink it within the first few hours until 24 hours of its life).


Dirty calf tails calf scours

Dirty calf tails sign of calf scours


Signs of Calf white scours

  • Bad smelling diarrhoea which is usually whitish in colour and sometimes frothy. In older calves, the colour of the dung is darker.
  • The affected calves lack appetite, are dull and listless.
  • The calf develops fever and is reluctant to stand up
  • As the diarrhoea progresses the calf becomes very dull, has a cold nose, the eyes retreat into their sockets and the skin feels cold and un-elastic (skin fold when raised does not slide back), it can no longer stand without support - these are clear signs of dehydration (the calf's body drying out). Most calves that reach an advanced stage of dehydration will not survive, no matter how you treat.


Treatment of calf diarrhoea in suckling calves

Small calves with diarrhoea lose a lot of fluid, minerals and energy very fast because they pass a lot of watery faeces and at the same time stop drinking, because they have fever. They do not die from a specific infection but they die because their bodies dry out (=dehydration ) and they become extremely weak. Older animals with larger bodies have much more fluid, minerals and energy reserves and can withstand diarrhoea for a much longer time.

The most important treatment, irrespective of the cause of the diarrhoea, is to immediately replace the fluid-minerals-and-energy loss. This is called rehydration.



Instruction how to give oral rehydration fluid:

  • Mix 5 tablespoons of sugar and 1 tablespoon of salt with 2 litres of clean water (boil water and let it cool down before mixing). Instead of 5 tablespoons sugar it is also very good to use 5 tablespoons of honey. A calf of 30 kg needs minimum 3 litres per day (minimum 1 litre for 10 kg of body weight per day). Feed the rehydration fluid in small portions at the rate of one and a half cup full at a time (equal to about 0.5litre).


How to prepare rehydration fluid for young animals with diarrhoea

How to prepare rehydration fluid for young animals with diarrhoea


  • In addition finely crushed charcoal powder can be added to the rehydration fluid (2 handful of charcoal powder per litre, then passed through a sieve before giving it to the calf).
  • It is very important to start giving rehydration fluid early, when the calf is still able to stand and suck actively
  • Rehydration fluid should be given until the calf is drinking normally again and faeces are no longer watery (3-5 days).
  • It is good to stop giving milk (severe cases) or to reduce the amount of milk on the first day; the milk may be withheld for 24 hours but not for longer than 36 hours. So from the second day on you can start giving small amounts of milk while still feeding rehydration fluid
  • Giving sulphonamide drugs (sachets with powder) by mouth helps the calf to overcome infection in the intestine, butsulphonamide or antibiotic alone without rehydration will not save a calf with severe diarrhoea


Prevention and Control

  • Assist the calf to drink colostrum as early as possible after birth, colostrum is a free oral vaccination against diarrhoea
  • Good hygiene in the calf house is very important control measure to prevent calves from infecting each other
  • Good hygiene also includes separation of the sick calves from the rest of the calves.
  • Provision of warm dry beddings and regular feeding regime


To read more on calf care click here: A calf life worth living


Calf Pneumonia

Common names: Calf Influenza, Virus pneumonia, Enzootic pneumonia

Description: Pneumonia is a common disease of weaned calves and is the main cause of mortality and reduced growth rates (stunting) in weaner calves. It is often associated with  stress, overcrowding, poor feeding and bad housing. The disease often ends in death, and some recovered animals remain stunted (= not growing to normal size).

The main underlying cause of calf pneumonia is poor immunity of the calf related to stress and poor feeding. Different causative agents of respiratory infections in calves include:

  • Different Viruses e.g. the Respiratory syncytial virus, Para-influenza type 3, Infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) and Coronavirus
  • Different Bacteria e.g. Pasteurella multocida and Mannheimia haemolytia, Streptococci, Haemophilus and Corynebacterium pyogenes.
  • Mycoplasmas e.g. Mycoplasma dispar, Mycoplasma bovis and the Acholeplasma laidlawii


Signs of Pneumonia

  • Rise in temperature which can be as high as 40.5 - 42 oC accompanied by watery discharge from the eyes and noses.
  • Discharge from the nose later becomes thick and contains pus.
  • Rapid breathing and cough
  • More severely affected calves stand with their heads down, backs arched and breath very heavily with an effort to get enough air.
  • In very acute cases of pneumonia there can be death within less than 3 days



The disease is obvious from the respiratory signs accompanied by fever.


Prevention and Control

  • Proper ventilation to minimize draughts in a calf house
  • Avoid over crowding of calves in the house and pasture
  • Provide dry housing and warm bedding to prevent chilling and to reduce ammonia and other noxious gases which damage the normal protective mechanisms in the calf's respiratory system. High humidity in the calf house also leads to outbreaks of calf pneumonia.
  • Avoid mixing calves of different age groups and especially calves from different sources in the same air space.
  • As in calf diarrhoea, ensure early and adequate intake of colostrums after birth; colostrum from the mother is a free vaccination against common disease agents and protects again t calf pneumonia. In Europe and America there are vaccine against some of the calf pneumonia agents.


Recommended treatment

Sulphonamide and antibiotic treatment are very effective when given in good time. To avoid a relapse treatment must be continued for 3 days. If treatment starts late, after lung damage has occurred calves may die, or if they recover they remain stunted.

Salmonellosis (Calf paratyphoid)

Common names: Calf paratyphoid 
Description: Bacterial infection
Salmonellosis, also called calf paratyphoid, is a bacterial infection which affects all animals including cattle, birds, pigs, sheep and humans. It is more serious in young calves and weaned calves and can cause a wide range of symptoms. 

There are more than 1000 types of salmonella. In young suckling calves, the disease is caused by a type of Salmonella called Salmonella typhimurium. In weaned calves, the most common cause of the disease is Salmonella Dublin. In adult animals Salmonella can cause abortion (see more here).

Salmonella are excreted into the environment by healthy symptomless carriers, which is either the dam or other calves. The calf becomes infected through ingestion of the salmonella from the environment (especially contaminated pastures and feeds, housing, and contaminated stagnant waters). Salmonellosis is common in unhygienic, dirty and wet environments and when calves are mixed at weaning.

A Salmonella infected herd may remain infected with Salmonella for several years with disease appearing now and then in calves but not in older animals.


Signs of Salmonellosis

In young calves when the disease is caused by S.typhimurium, the characteristic symptoms include the following:

  • In the most severe form, there is profuse diarrhoea with a very bad smell accompanied by high temperature. Salmonella invade the whole body very fast - this is called septicaemia. Death may occur within 24 hours or less, before the diarrhoea becomes visible!
  • In chronic form, the affected calf would have pasty dung, and is often unthrifty. Some calves can carry the disease for a long time without showing clear disease signs. Such calves shed a lot of salmonella in their faeces when they become stressed (e.g. cold and wet weather) thus infecting other calves

In weaned calves, affected with S. dublin, symptoms include:

  • scouring which resemble the one caused by S. typhimurium may occur.
  • Signs can vary a lot and include septicaemia, pneumonia, meningitis and also kidney infections.
  • Sometimes, scouring may be seen containing lumps of intestinal wall, blood and mucus. Infected calves would be dull, lack appetite and may also be coughing
  • Occasionally, a group of calves may appear thrifty abruptly and sudden deaths may be observed.


Prevention and Control

  • Isolate the sick calves to reduce the likelihood of infection to the remainder of the group.
  • Ensure clean housing, move animals out of dirty Bomas to avoid calves being exposed to faeces full of salmonella.
  • Avoid wet and damp conditions. Salmonella thrive in the environment when it is wet.
  • Vaccination using a live vaccine is a good control measure and this can be given from day old or soon after purchase of the calf, (but at the time the vaccine is only available in Botswana/South Africa).
  • Give adequate colostrums (as soon as possible and as much as possible) to boost immunity of the calf soon after birth.
  • Avoid purchasing replacement calves which may carry salmonella into your herd, instead it is advisable to rear your own replacement calves.


Recommended treatment

It is advisable to treat the animals as soon as possible with antibiotics. The drugs can be administered through the mouth or by injection. But response to treatment is often very poor, especially with septicaemic salmonellosis because it kills fast (and can kill 75% of the animals if they are not treated).




Other common names: Black scours
Description: Parasite infection

Coccidiosis is a disease affecting not only in calves and young weaners but also older animals. The disease is caused by a group of intestinal protozoan parasites known as coccidia, which are only visible under a microscope.

Coccidia live in the lining of the guts of healthy adult animals who excrete them in their faeces. Coccidia can survive in the environment for long time and even survive disinfection. They are therefore picked up by young animals not only from pasture but also from dirty stable floors. Coccidia burrow in the wall of the lower gut, thus causing the disease. Incubation takes about 3 weeks from the time of infection. Weaned calves and young stock between the ages of 2 months and 2 years are all susceptible to the infection.


Signs of Coccidiosis

  • The affected calves pass out very soft faeces, usually of dark colour ("black scours") because the faeces contain varying amounts of blood. One characteristic clinical sign of coccidiosis in calves is straining to pass out blood stained or very dark faeces.
  • The affected weaners, but also older steers and heifers up to 2 years, appear dull, weak and lose weight rapidly
  • They display discomfort and grind their teeth



Because some intestinal worms can cause similar symptoms the faeces from the infected animals should be taken to a veterinary laboratory for microscopic examination.


Prevention and Control

  • Ploughing and reseeding of infected grazing pastures can help to reduce the contamination with coccidia in permanent paddocks where the disease is prevalent
  • Careful rotation of calves in the grazing paddocks helps to minimize infection
  • Avoid confining calves to one grazing area for a prolonged period
  • Rest grazing paddocks for an ample time to avoid accumulation of pathogens
  • If stables are infected, clean out thoroughly with hot water and detergent to remove the coccidia


Recommended treatment

Only a few specific drugs have an effect on coccidia, they are called Coccidiostatics.  Administration of  coccidiostatic drugs, such as sulphonamides, nitrofurazone and amprolium by mouth controls the infection. Coccidiostatic drugs are more poisonous than many other drugs and  must be carefully dosed.

Other types of diarrhea in calves and young animals

Usually it is difficult to make a definite diagnosis based purely on the clinical signs. However, a presumptive diagnosis may be made based on the history, age of the calf, and symptoms. Faecal samples from both sick and healthy calves should be taken for submission to a laboratory, together with, if possible, a living sick animal. Some examples are listed below:

Clostridial diarrhoea affects calves/lambs/kids of a few days old, which are strong and have good appetite. Onset is sudden with depression, weakness, bloody diarrhoea, abdominal pain and death within a few hours. Clostridia produce a lot of toxin which kills very fast. Most die before treatment can be started.

Viral infections such as those due to Rotavirus or Coronavirus affect calves of 5 - 15 days old but can affect older calves up to several months of age. Most are only moderately depressed and continue to suck and drink milk. The faeces are soft to liquid, and often contain large amounts of mucous. The diarrhoea often persists for several days. Response to fluid and electrolyte therapy and nutritional support is usually very good.

Cryptosporidiosis occurs most commonly in the second week of life, with persistent diarrhoea which does not respond to treatment. Often it is mild and self limiting but if mixed with other organisms may be severe and life-threatening.

Dietary diarrhoeas occur in calves less than 3 weeks old and shows pasty faeces often of a gelatinous consistency. Initially calves are bright and alert and have good appetites but if the diet is not corrected they become weak and emaciated.

Many infectious forms of diarrhoea are often complicated by poor quality feeds or insufficient nutritional intake.


Worms - When calves/lambs/kids start to graze they can also develop diarrhoea due to worm infection (see link to worms).

Poisoning - Another possible cause for diarrhoea can be plant poisoning (link to plant poisoning) and contaminated feed (especially Aflatoxin!).


Navel III

Other common names: Joint ill, Omphalophlebitis
Description: Infection of the navel in newborn calves, often leading to joint ill

Calf with Navel III

Calf with Navel III



Signs of Navel Ill / Joint Ill

Navel ill is an infection in newborn calves that enters the body through the umbilical cord.  It is caused by different bacteria (Corynebacterium, Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, Actinomyces) and occurs when a calf is born in a very dirty environment.

As soon as the calf has been born the umbilical cord comes into contact with bacteria that thrive in dirty stables and pens. The infection moves up through the umbilical cord and then spreads via the blood in the whole body. After a few days the navel ill bacteria settle in different parts of the body where they multiply and cause disease. In most calves the bacteria will settle in the joints. This leads to joint ill, usually affecting the large joints of the legs. The joints swell up and are full of pus. Affected calves lose appetite and are reluctant to stand up or move. The navel is also swollen and may contain pus. In some calves the bacteria my settle in the liver or in the brain. In such cases the calf will normally die.


Navel ill / Joint Ill does not respond very well to antibiotic injection, because the drug does not penetrate effectively into the joints.  Very early treatment, when the navel is hot but the joints are not yet swollen is more successful.



Calves that drink colostrum soon after birth will be protected against the bacteria that cause navel ill. Also, dipping the umbilical cord into iodine immediately after birth will prevent bacteria from entering it. - Once the umbilical cord has dried up bacteria can no longer use it as an entry into the body. - Providing clean bedding for the cow to give birth can also prevent navel Ill (see under Assisting with birth).


Information Source Links

  • Barber, J., Wood, D.J. (1976) Livestock management for East Africa: Edwar Arnold (Publishers) Ltd 25 Hill Street London WIX 8LL. ISBN: 071310063X
  • Blood, D.C., Radostits, O.M. and Henderson, J.A. (1983) Veterinary Medicine - A textbook of the Diseases of Cattle, Sheep, Goats and Horses. Sixth Edition - Bailliere Tindall London. ISBN: 0702012866
  • Blowey, R.W. (1986). A Veterinary book for dairy farmers: Farming press limited Wharfedale road, Ipswich, Suffolk IPI 4LG
  • Force, B. (1999). Where there is no Vet. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands. ISBN 978-0333-58899-4.
  • Hall, H.T.B. (1985). Diseases and parasites of Livestock in the tropics. Second Edition. Longman Group UK. ISBN 0582775140
  • Hunter, A. (1996). Animal health: General principles. Volume 1 (Tropical Agriculturalist) - Macmillan Education Press. ISBN: 0333612027
  • Hunter, A. (1996). Animal health: Specific Diseases. Volume 2 (Tropical Agriculturalist) - Macmillan Education Press. ISBN:0-333-57360-9
  • ITDG and IIRR (1996). Ethnoveterinary medicine in Kenya: A field manual of traditional animal health care practices. Intermediate Technology Development Group and International Institute of Rural Reconstruction, Nairobi, Kenya. ISBN 9966-9606-2-7.
  • Pagot, J. (1992). Animal Production in the Tropics and Subtropics. MacMillan Education Limited London. ISBN 0-333-53818-8
  • The Organic Farmer magazine No. 50 July 2009

Review Process:

1 Draft By William Ayako, Animal scientist, KARI Naivasha Aug 2009
2 Review workshop team. Nov 2 - 5, 2010 
  • For Infonet: Anne Bruntse, Dr Hugh Cran 
  • For KARI: Dr Mario Younan KARI/KASAL, William Ayako - Animal scientist, KARI Naivasha 
  • For DVS: Dr Josphat Muema - Dvo Isiolo, Dr Charity Nguyo - Kabete Extension Division, Mr Patrick Muthui - Senior Livestock Health Assistant Isiolo, Ms Emmah Njeri Njoroge - Senior Livestock Health Assistant Machakos 
  • Pastoralists: Dr Ezra Saitoti Kotonto - Private practitioner, Abdi Gollo H.O.D. Segera Ranch 
  • Farmers: Benson Chege Kuria and Francis Maina Gilgil and John Mutisya Machakos 
  • Language and format: Carol Gachiengo

3: June 2013: Review and update by Dr Mario Younan (DVM, PhD), Regional Technical Advisor for VSF-Germany. working in East Africa since 1995