Animal Health & Disease Management

Diarrhea of the young

Diarrhea of the young

Local names: 
Embu: kuvarua / Gabbra:halabata, albahti, albata / Luo: Ambululu, diep / Kipsigis:keburketan / Kikuyu: ruharo,kuharuo / Kamba:wituuo / Maasai: Ankorotik, olodo kurum / Maragoli: kunyalala munda / Samburu: ngorotit, nkiriato, ngiriata, kep-ngochek / Somali: har, har dig, hardik, shutan, daab, adeya / Turkana: eremonu, lomaritenit, anemoriloleo, lolera / 


Description: Management disease 




Many diseases of young animals 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.
Diarrhoea is a common disease in livestock - calves, lambs and kids- , especially in the newborn and suckling young animals. The acute disease in the newborn is characterised by progressive dehydration and rapid death, sometimes in as few as12 hours. In the subacute form, diarrhoea may persist for several days and result in emaciation and stunted growth. 


Several pathogens are associated with neonatal diarrhoea. The most common are the bacterium Escherichia coli, the viruses (Rota and Corona) and Cryptosporidia parasites. Others include Salmonella, Clostridia and Giardia. The organisms responsible for diarrhoea are commonly found in the faeces of healthy animals but they can also come from the pen or from the boma and from dirty foul standing water. A few calves with diarrhoea can result in severe contamination of the calf rearing area. Transmission to younger calves is directly by mouth. Close contact between calves facilitates transmission of disease. Do not place calf pens close together.
Diarrhoea can also occur because of stress, dirty housing, overcrowding, feeding dirty milk or feeding too much milk.
Contaminated feed can be a serious source for Salmonella infection.



Signs of Diarrhoea

  • Bad smelling soft, sometimes watery, faeces which is usually whitish in color and sometimes frothy. In older calves, the color of the dung is darker. 
  • The affected calves lack appetite, becomes dull and refuse to drink. 
  • The calf develops fever and loses water, minerals and energy very fast until it canot stand up any more.
  • The skin of the calf becomes dry and looses elasticity. If you raise a skin fold it remains standing for a while and does not move back. This is a sign of severe dehydration. 
  • Also the mouth of the calf beocme cold and the eyes sink into the socket. 
  • Calves that are dull, have a cold mouth and a dry skin and cannot stand may die very fast. 

The major symptoms of diarrhoea are dehydration (lack of water), profound weakness, and death within one to several days of onset. Onset is sudden with passing of a lot of liquid faeces.The calf rapidly becomes depressed because of loss of fluids, salt and energy. It becomes too weak to stand. Death may occur in severe cases within 12 - 24 hours. 


  • Salmonella infections usually occur in calves older than 14 days and can also affect weaners. The faeces are often foul smelling, and contain blood, clots and mucous. There is general infection (septicaemia ) with high fever, and depression leading to collapse and coma. Affected calves lose weight rapidly and often die despite treatment with antibiotics.
  • 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.
  • Coccidiosis causes diarrhoea in young calves/kids/lambs but also in older animals up to weaning age. They are unthrifty, faeces are thin watery with blood. Faeces look red at first and then become dark. Calves often press trying to pass faeces. They may be depressed, not eat and become dehydrated.
  • 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.


When calves/lambs/kids start to graze they can also develop diarrhoea due to worm infection (see: worms). Another possible cause for diarrhoea can be plant poisoning (see: plant poisoning) and contaminated feed (especially Aflatoxin!).

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.


Prevention and Control

The most important protection against diarrhoea for the young comes from the mothers colostrum, which protect the young during its first months of life. Colostrum given too late is a main cause of diarrhoea. 

It is possible to identify the different diarrhoea agents responsible in a laboratory, but this may take too long because the disease develops too fast. Only some diarrhoea pathogens have specific treatments, for example Coccidia. Re-hydration treatment applies to all different forms of diarrhoea and must be started very early, when the calf is still able to stand and suckle.

Many pathogens of the intestine also produce toxins that can kill the animal fast. Charcoal powder absorbs the toxins and helps remove them from the body.

So first treatment on observing a problem is rehydration liquids mixed with charcoal powder.


Certain broad principles apply to all herds:


  • A new-born calf must drink at least 5% of its bodyweight of colostrum, preferably during the first 2 hours after birth, and certainly within the first 6 hours after birth. Adequate feeding of colostrum to calves at birth provides passive immunity to calves. A significant portion of both naturally sucking calves and handfed calves do not acquire adequate amounts of immunoglobulin because of delayed sucking or feeding, ingestion of an inadequate volume of colostrum, or ingestion of colostrum of inferior immunoglobulin concentration. 
  • Always Provide clean water to young calves/lambs/kids for drinking
  • Vaccination of mother and calf against specific infections, such as E.coli can help to increase the resistance of the newborn. 
  • Clean calf pens regularly. Do not allow faeces to accumulate. 
  • Avoid over crowding of calves, and reduce the degree of exposure by isolating diseased animals, moving calving and calf rearing to a separate area and practising good hygiene. 
  • Find out which specific organism is causing the disease. This requires a laboratory test on a faecal sample or rectal swab handled by a skilled veterinarian, since some of these pathogens are harmful to humans. Where the pathogens are known, the right antibiotic, if indicated, can be given. 


The most important treatment measure regardless of the cause of diarrhoea is rehydration. Calves do not show signs of dehydration until they have lost at least 6% of their body weight. So do not wait! Calves still able to stand should be given oral electrolyte solution (rehydration fluid)that contains also Glucose to provide the calf with energy. You can also add honey instead of Glucose.

  • 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 30kg needs minimum 3litres 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). Kids and lambs need less of the fluid because they are much smaller (minimum 0.1litre per kg body weight per day). 
  • Rehydration fluid should be given for five days. 
  • In addition finely crushed charcoal (like 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). 

Milk may be withheld for first 24 hours but not for longer than 36 hours. So from the the second day on you can start giving small amounts of milk while still feeding rehydration fluid.

Calves that are recumbent and weak need both oral and intravenous electrolyte therapy for which the services of a veterinarian will be required.

Antibiotics are not required to treat diarrhoea caused by viruses, or protozoa such as cryptosporidia or coccidia. In cases of septicaemia due to E.coli or Salmonella antibiotic may be helpful (use injectable antibiotics).
Coccidiosis is easy to confirm in the laboratory and should be treated with specific anti-Coccidia drugs (Amprolium, also some sulphonamides given orally).

Table of content