Springtime in the Peace Country heralds the arrival of a new generation of farm animals, not the least of which are new baby calves. The sight of the calves playing can make anyone smile. Peace Country ranchers work very hard to produce a group of healthy vigorous calves to send out to the summer pastures and bring to market in the fall.
The challenge for newborn calves is that even though they are healthy and fully equipped for the world in almost every way, they are born with little or no immunity. In the perfect situation, the healthy calf is born quickly, gets up within minutes of birth and nurses the mother till satisfied within the first few hours of life. This process is vital for the health of the calf. The first milk, called colostrum, is rich in antibodies that the newborn calf can absorb directly from his bowel. The process is time sensitive and the best colostrum absorption occurs within hours of birth.
Calves live in an environment full of potential health threats. The biggest cause of disease in young calves is a condition called scours, which is diarrhea. Calves may have only mild symptoms, or the syndrome can be debilitating and even life threatening. Dehydration and changes in blood chemistry are the result of the fluid losses. Many different agents cause scours, making management and treatment difficult. Prevention is the key and there is no magic cure.
Many common cases of scours are caused by viruses. There are no specific drugs that cure viral scours. Some bacterial causes will respond to specific antibiotics, but best results are obtained by culturing and testing the bacteria in the lab for the best antibiotic options. Some diarrhea cases are caused by parasites that affect the young animal’s bowel. There is no specific treatment for Cryptosporidia, but a similar parasite called Coccidia can be effectively treated.
This complex picture highlights the need for accurate diagnosis of the cause. Management focuses on reducing the exposure of calves to disease by keeping them clean, dry and stress free. Immunity can be improved by vaccinating mother cows before calving to improve the colostrum, or by supplying antibodies to the calf from other sources while he can best absorb them. Treatment is generally supportive for the calf, supplying fluids and preventing other problems from occurring while he recovers.
Keep in mind that some cases of diarrhea are contagious to other animals, including humans. E. coli, Salmonella and Cryptosoridia can transfer to people. Practice good biosecurity and personal hygiene whenever around farm animals.
As veterinarians, we are trained to diagnose, treat and prevent health problems in animals. We are part of the hard working team maintaining healthy herds and providing the wholesome food that Canadian farms and ranches supply to consumers every day. Remember: everyone needs a farmer three times every day, and smile when you see those frisky baby calves in the field as you go by.
Dr. Perry Spitzer is an owner and director of North Peace Veterinary Clinic Ltd. with his life and veterinary partner, Dr. Corinne Spitzer.