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Can maternal colostrum prevent diarrhea cases in calves?

Manuel F. Chamorro Published on 30 October 2015

Diarrhea caused by Cryptosporidium parvum (C. parvum) is a common condition observed in calves between 1 and 4 weeks old.

Although many calves can shed oocysts (eggs) of this protozoa in feces from 5 days to 3 to 4 weeks old without showing clinical signs, when infection is heavy (greater number of eggs) and complicated by other enteric pathogens such as E. coli, Rota and Coronavirus diarrhea can be profuse, and calves can become dehydrated and debilitated quickly.



Eggs shed by infected calves in feces contaminate the environment, feed and water and easily infect other calves. After infection, the organism damages the villi (absorptive lining) of the intestine, and the calf loses its ability to absorb nutrients at the same time that diarrhea develops.

At the moment, there aren’t licensed drugs to treat C. parvum-associated calf diarrhea in the U.S. or Canada. A drug called Halofuginone is currently approved to prevent cryptosporidiosis in Europe and has been reported to reduce the severity of diarrhea and delay oocyst shedding in calves treated for seven to 10 days after birth.

Calves affected by the disease should receive supportive treatment with parenteral and oral fluids and electrolytes to correct dehydration and metabolic abnormalities. Whole milk or milk replacer should be fed in affected animals at lower volumes several times a day to provide adequate nutrition.

Prevention of the cryptosporidiosis in calves is difficult as the organism is resistant to several disinfectants, and there are no vaccines or medication available to prevent infection. Reduction of contact of healthy calves with infective oocysts (eggs) in the environment remains the most important preventive measure.

Important steps towards prevention and control of cryptosporidiosis in calves include:


  • Feed good-quality colostrum to all calves in a timely manner.

  • Guarantee the cleanliness and hygiene of the calving area.

  • Guarantee proper hygiene of all calf-feeding equipment.

  • Avoid calf-to-calf contact for the first two to four weeks of life.

  • Separate immediately diarrheic or sick calves, and feed sick calves last.

  • Calf housing areas should be disinfected with 5 percent ammonia, 10 percent formol saline or oxine.

  • An all-in, all-out system should be ideally used when possible.

  • Guarantee adequate calf nutrition.

  • Control wildlife populations.

Studies have not been able to demonstrate that maternally derived immunity from colostrum is fully capable to prevent infection with C. parvum in calves.

However, adequate passive transfer immunity reduces the risk of mixed infections with other enteric pathogens such as E. coli, Rota and Coronavirus, and decreases the severity of disease.

A previous study reported that high levels of colostral antibodies against C. parvum in the calf’s gut during the first weeks of life could block the parasite and prevent infection.

It is possible that supplementation of maternal colostrum, milk or milk replacer with colostrum replacer powder could increase the concentration of specific antibodies against C. parvum and further prevent infection and disease.

The presence of higher levels of passive immunity in the intestine provided by a colostrum replacer could potentiate the ability of the calf to immobilize the parasite and prevent its adhesion to the intestinal cells.  PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.


Manuel F. Chamorro is also assistant professor of food animal medicine and surgery at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Manuel F. Chamorro
  • Manuel F. Chamorro

  • Technical Veterinary Adviser
  • Saskatoon Colostrum Company Ltd.
  • Email Manuel F. Chamorro

PHOTO: Staff photo.