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Stop calf diarrhea: know the causes and symptoms and prevent them!

Calf diarrhea or newborn diarrhea or medically “neonatal diarrhea” (ND) is the most common disease in young animals today. It occurs mainly in the first two to three weeks of life, often accumulating in stocks.

As a typical factor disease with various causes, calf diarrhea should be treated immediately in order to prevent the endangerment of the individual animal or even death and to quickly contain the spread of the disease in the herd. You should also consult your farm veterinarian in good time if you have calf diarrhea!

  • Calf diarrhea: Recognize symptoms in the faeces and behavior of the animals
  • Calf diarrhea in the herd: initiate first measures immediately!
  • Preventing calf diarrhea: 4 measures against calf diarrhea

Calf diarrhea causes: infectious and non-infectious factors

Calf diarrhea is a typical factor disease. So there is not just a specific trigger for the disease, but mostly several factors work together. In calf diarrhea, a distinction is made between infectious and non-infectious causes.

Infectious causes of calf diarrhea:
Infectious causes include various viruses, bacteria and parasites, especially rotaviruses and coronaviruses, as well as enteropathogenic Escherichia coli and cryptosporidia. Furthermore, coccidia (parasitic single-cell organisms) and gastrointestinal worms can trigger calf diarrhea, depending on the severity of the infestation. In practice, there are often mixed infections. A special pathogen detection only makes sense if there is a problem in the entire population.

Non-infectious causes of calf diarrhea:
Non-infectious causes can, for example, be errors in watering if too large quantities of milk are consumed per meal. Furthermore, coccidia (parasitic single-cell organisms) and gastrointestinal worms can cause calf diarrhea, depending on the severity of the infestation.

Other influencing factors can promote calf diarrhea. A very important point here is the insufficient colostrum supply of the newborn calves. In addition, poor hygiene and high stocking density can increase the pressure of infection, stress factors weaken the immune system and poor housing conditions can contribute to the outbreak of calf diarrhea.

Calf diarrhea Symptoms: faeces and changed behavior of the animals

The symptoms of calf diarrhea and the severity of the disease can be recognized very quickly and clearly, especially on the faeces of the animals. In addition, there is a changed behavior of the animals, which is characterized by the loss of water and the degree of dehydration. Always keep an eye on your calves!

Symptoms of calf diarrhea on faeces:
  • First signs: The manure is thinner and smearier, yellowish and only slightly shaped.
  • Diarrhea: The excrement has a soup-like consistency, is still yellowish and remains on the litter.
  • Severe diarrhea: the feces are now watery and run off the straw.

Symptoms of calf diarrhea in behavior:
  • Slight dehydration: the calf is standing and is still thirsty, a fold of skin disappears immediately
  • Moderate dehydration: the calf lies down and is less thirsty, skin folds slowly disappear
  • High dehydration: calf lies tight, ears and limbs cold, refusal to drink, skin folds remain, sunken eyes

Calf diarrhea in the herd: what needs to be done?

Calf diarrhea should be identified and treated quickly in order to prevent acute endangerment of the animal, spread of the pathogen and possible consequential damage.

  • Isolate sick animals
First of all, the affected animals must be separated from the group in order to stop the spread. If the diarrhea already occurs frequently in many animals, the veterinarian should be consulted to determine the pathogen if necessary and to initiate special treatment.

  • First measures in case of mild illness
If the diarrhea is still mild, the feces are still greasy and yellowish, the calf is still standing and thirsty and skin folds disappear immediately, the milk drinks should be kept in a controlled manner. Electrolyte drinks should now be supplemented to compensate for the loss of fluid and nutrients - several times a day in smaller portions. Pay particular attention to the optimal milk temperature and hygienic feeding buckets! Carefully check the behavior and temperature of the animals on a regular basis!

  • Progressive course: call a veterinarian!
If the first measures do not show any effect, consult your veterinarian! Lying and fixed animals with watery droppings, reduced thirst or refusal to feed are now particularly at risk! The veterinarian can, for example, compensate for the loss of fluid with infusions and initiate further medication measures.

Prevent consequential damage from calf diarrhea!

Calf diarrhea is not only an acute illness, it usually also results in consequential damage that has a negative impact on the profitability of your business.

Illnesses should be contained quickly and severe courses prevented at all costs in order to reduce higher treatment costs and costs due to total losses. Animals suffering from calf diarrhea have significantly reduced daily weight gain, which has a long-term effect on performance.

For example, there was also a connection between the incidence of the disease in the age of the calving and the rate of death: In animals that were sick three times or more, the rate of death is over 50%!1

Preventing calf diarrhea: 4 measures against calf diarrhea.

Prevention is always better than dealing with the consequences of calf diarrhea in the herd. With 4 measures in particular, it should be possible to effectively reduce the number of calf diarrhea and avoid spreading it to the herd:

1. Optimal colostrum supply

Biestmilch is the best you can give your newborn calves. Ensure that there is an adequate supply of good quality, preferably 4 liters or more in the first 6 hours after the birth.

Also check out our tips on colostrum management on this topic.

2. Thorough hygiene

Make sure the barn is clean: clean calving boxes, your own drinking buckets and dry, draft-free and clean housing conditions should be standard! Cleaning and disinfection should be carried out with agents that are effective against viruses, bacteria and endoparasites.

3. Use individual stalls

Calf boxes, mobile individual boxes and igloos are preferable to group housing in order to prevent the calves from infecting each other.

4. Vaccination of the dam

By vaccinating the cow before birth, the colostrum contains an even higher number of antibodies in the colostrum. The success then depends on the optimal quality and intake of the colostrum.

Prevent calf diarrhea and other calf diseases!

Stay vigilant: It is also important to keep an eye on the animals on a daily basis when it comes to calf diarrhea. This is the only way to identify the first signs of illness immediately and to initiate successful measures quickly. Always work closely with your farm veterinarian, it's worth it - also with regard to other calf diseases!

You can find out more about calf diseases in our main article. You are also welcome to read our articles on calf flu as well as umbilical infections and ear infections in calves.


1 Investigation by Trilk and Münch, 2008