Fecal Consistency Scoring: why should you spend your time evaluating it?

By Dr. Dave Renaud, ACER Consulting Ltd.

Diarrhea remains one of the most commonly diagnosed diseases amongst calves within the veal and dairy industries. It’s occurrence on farms is associated with higher rates of antibiotic treatment and increased mortality, where five per cent of calves that require treatment for diarrhea end up dying. Even in calves that survive the initial onset of disease, long term impacts may occur such as reduced growth, increased age at first calving, and reduced first lactation milk production for dairy animals.

In fact, a recent study found that the longer calves had diarrhea, the greater the impact on weight gain. For example, calves that spent more than 10 of their first 28 days with diarrhea weighed 16 kg (35.3 lbs.) less compared to calves that had seven of their first 28 days with diarrhea (see Figure 1). Altogether, it is estimated that each case of diarrhea costs at least $150. 

Figure 1. Impact of diarrhea (Fecal Score (FS) 2 or 3) in the first 28 days on body weight gain.

Clearly, diarrhea is a significant challenge to calves. An important consideration to minimize short and long-term consequences of diarrhea is to identify calves early in the disease process. To do this, fecal consistency scoring can be used to ensure accuracy and consistency.

What is fecal consistency scoring?

Fecal consistency scoring is the visual assessment of feces where it is scored on a scale of 0 to 3, where 0 = normal (firm but not hard, original form is distorted slightly after dropping to the floor and settling); 1 = soft (does not hold form, piles but spreads slightly); 2 = runny (spreads readily); and 3 = watery (liquid consistency, splatters). A fecal score of 2 or 3 indicates the presence of diarrhea, as these consistency scores describe feces with high water content. Examples of each score are depicted in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Visual depiction of fecal consistency scoring from 0 to 3.

How to use fecal consistency scoring

Although fecal consistency scoring may seem like an academic exercise, it can have a lot of utility when used routinely. Fecal scoring calves when feeding or handling them helps to identify calves at the onset of diarrhea. It also acts as a consistent guide on when to intervene. When calves are identified with a fecal score of 2 or 3, which indicates diarrhea, an additional feeding of electrolytes can be provided. Providing oral fluid therapy (electrolytes) at the onset of diarrhea will help to prevent dehydration, which is ultimately responsible for calf death.

An additional therapy that could be provided when calves are identified with a fecal score of 2 or 3, is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). Calves treated with an NSAID at the onset of diarrhea are more likely to consume their daily milk allowance, consume starter ration earlier and at a greater rate, and consume more water compared to untreated calves, which translates into better gains when they are treated. Therefore, using an NSAID at the onset of diarrhea can contribute to improved recovery and reduce the impact of the disease.

Beyond the benefits of using fecal consistency scoring to identify calves early in the course of diarrhea, it is a simple and easy tool to train other personnel responsible for managing calves. It has been shown to be fairly repeatable between individuals, meaning it can help calves with diarrhea be identified early and allow for consistent treatment between staff members. 

When should fecal consistency scoring be used?

Special attention should be paid from birth to 14 days of age as that is when the majority of diarrhea occurs, as highlighted in Figure 3

Figure 3. Age range when calf diarrhea is most likely to occur.

Take home messages

Diarrhea is very common in calves and can be costly. Ensuring that we intervene early in the disease process can be helpful to reduce the impact of diarrhea. Using fecal consistency scoring routinely can help to identify early signs of diarrhea, where an electrolyte and/or NSAID can be provided to improve recovery. Monitoring dehydration, including eye recession and attitude, is also critical to determine when intravenous fluid therapy is needed. Work with your veterinarian to develop diarrhea identification and treatment protocols to help improve calf health on your farm.

This project was funded by the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, a five-year federal-provincial-territorial initiative.