Using calf depression scores

Time can be a critical factor between life and death with young calves. Many dairy and even beef operations have implemented calf treatment protocols for their employees to follow. Veterinary experts agree that protocols that are clear, consistent and reproducible time after time can be valuable for instituting effective treatment.

Depression scores for calves are one of these tools that can be put in calf treatment protocols and can be consistently applied from employee to employee.

Hans Coetzee, BVSc, Cert CHP, Dipl. ACVCP, Iowa State University, says these scores can be used to assess the general attitude of calves in a population and that they are not specific for any particular disease.

“In my view, depression scores are a valuable tool if they are used to train caregivers in the standardized assessment of animal attitude,” Coetzee explains. “With proper training, the use of depression scores should be reproducible between multiple scorers and therefore provide consistency in animal care.”

Depression scores used as part of a treatment protocol can also help ensure that therapies are applied in a consistent manner. “The relationship between depression score at the time of treatment and therapeutic outcome can be used to determine if therapies are appropriate and if animals are being identified and treated early enough in the course of the disease to be effective,” Coetzee adds. Coetzee says in the case of diarrhea, he believes a calf could progress from a 0 to 4 in a matter of hours if not treated appropriately.

Depression scores are likely to be heavily influenced by hydration status and metabolic acidosis. This system can therefore be a very sensitive measure of calf well-being. “In the case of calf dehydration, body temperature may not be a very useful indicator of disease progression unless the calf is approaching moribund,” Coetzee says.

However, depression scores may be very useful tools to make therapeutic decisions. For example calves with a depression score of 3 or 4 may require intravenous fluids. “Setting these criteria for therapeutic interventions can increase the likelihood of calves being treated in a timely fashion.”


Depression scores for calves
Depression scoring system used to determine sickness and diagnose bovine respiratory disease (BRD) in calves (adapted from Perino and Apley, 1998).

Depression Score Clinical signs

0 Normal, no signs of depression
1 Noticeable depression without apparent signs of weakness. Slower than pen mates but still raises head when approached and does not appear weak, actively follows your movements with a raised head.
2 Marked depression with moderate signs of weakness without a significantly altered gait. Stands with head lowered, will perk up when approached but will return to depressed stance, moves slowly and falls towards back of group, may display signs of weakness such as incoordination.
3 Severe depression with signs of weakness such as a significantly altered gait. Obviously weak, difficulty in moving with group, raises head only when approached closely.
4 Moribund, unable to rise.