Rapid scours diagnosis key to limiting piglet mortality

Diarrhea or scours in baby pigs can cause a rapid decline in health as animals become dehydrated and develop systemic infections. Diagnosing and identifying a plan to treat scours as quickly as possible are critical to reducing morbidity and mortality in neonatal pigs, said Deb Murray, DVM, veterinary services manager for New Fashion Pork in Jackson, Minn. Scours in baby pigs can cause a rapid decline in health as animals become dehydrated and develop systemic infections, she said.
calendar icon 12 May 2021
clock icon 6 minute read

And while preventing scours should always be the first goal, getting a diagnosis and beginning treatment immediately are key to supporting baby pigs whose immune systems have yet to fully develop.

Avoid stress

Speaking at the 2020 Carthage Swine Conference, Murray said avoiding stress is an important place to start, as stressed piglets can see a 50% reduction in [digestive] motility, while immune systems can also be adversely affected.

“Sometimes the immune system will overreact, and we’ll see leaky junctions in the GI tract, where pathogens that don’t get across the gut are crossing it,” she said. “That can lead to some of the scour issues we see.”

To tackle stress, addressing the piglets’ environment and the barn’s ventilation are important places to start, Murray explained.

Barn managers should be able to identify how much air flow a barn’s fan produces, as well as check heat and air distribution to make sure inlets are adjusted accordingly.

“We definitely want to make sure our inlets are [producing an airstream of] 800 to 1,000 feet per minute,” she said.

“Typically, we’ll be a little bit under that level if too many inlets are open. This can create uneven inlet distribution, where we have drafts going down on particular litters. This tends to allow scour issues to develop in that room, and then they spread from there.”

Watching piglet behavior to see if they are piling or laying on and off the mat and regularly checking that heat lamps are set up and working correctly will give clues to the temperature in a room at a given point.

“Obviously we can’t be in the room all the time, so we have to depend on our controllers, but we can also depend on our pigs to give us some information,” Murray said.

Biosecurity and hygiene

“Crate sanitation is critical, so the initial step of rinsing should be followed by a deep degrease with hot water,” Murray said. Disinfectant must be applied at the correct rate, which is often contingent upon water-flow rate.

“Make sure you go back and inspect those rooms,” she added. “If you have a scour issue, you want to do as good a job of cleaning as possible. If you don’t allow time for an inspection, you know that’s not going to happen.”

Properly drying the room can be a challenge if sows need to be moved in, but it’s “truly important,” Murray said. “Even if we have to sacrifice a day to get those rooms dry and to get rid of that scour, that’s something that we should be willing to do.”

She suggested employees use disposable aprons and make sure scouring litters are processed last so non-scouring litters don’t become infected.

Whitewashing has been a key factor in cleaning up scouring farms as well as grow-finish sites for New Fashion Pork, Murray said.

“It provides a physical barrier, so if I have a viral challenge it gives me the time and temperature to kill that pathogen before the pigs are exposed,” she said. “It also is a nice visual to see exactly where we’ve been or what we’ve missed.”

Colostrum availability

Producers can have the best vaccine programs and the best gilt immunity, but if piglets don’t ingest colostrum at birth, none of those things matter, Murray said.

Split-suckling may be a helpful intervention. On one farm within New Fashion Pork, the pre-wean mortality was about 21%, she said. But after implementing split-suckling, pre-wean mortality declined to about 13%.

Increase immunity

New Fashion Pork typically uses pre-farrow vaccines to increase immunity, primarily for Escherichia coli, clostridium, coronavirus and Salmonella, Murray explained.

“There’s also the option of live oral exposure,” she added. “Sometimes that’s used if we have a farm-specific strain that we can’t get in a vaccine or can’t get in a timely enough manner for our situation. Examples might be porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, delta coronavirus or perhaps Seneca Valley virus. Those can be administered as feedback or as a live oral bacterin, but we know the timing of that is very critical.”

Feedback is used to boost immunity for agents that are already on the farm, Murray added.

“Maybe we want to homogenize the herd if we have a new break, and we want to try to eliminate that virus.”

Feedback is a common practice for some viruses or infectious agents, but Murray said it’s important to consider welfare concerns as well as state laws or other legalities.

“We also want to make sure we’re addressing any concerns the farm staff may initially have with the feedback process, while also keeping in mind how this looks to the consumer,” she added.

Water quality

New Fashion has higher mineral levels in a lot of the water it uses, Murray said, and the bacterial load can be high from iron-loving bacteria.

Farrowing rooms tend not to be empty for long. Some treatments can be run continuously to treat lines — although not every treatment option will treat everything. Producers should select water-line treatment products that are safe when consumed by sows and/or piglets.

“Talk with your water-treatment specialist on what you’re trying to target before you implement a cleaning program,” she said. In addition, if farms have chlorinated rural water, the chlorine may interfere with the effectiveness of the feedback program. It’s important to make sure that factor is neutralized, she added

Maintenance involves treating lines on a regular basis. However, if water lines have started to close up, the lines may need to be replaced so you can start with a clean slate.


Knowing the primary cause of a scour problem is critical to properly address the problem, Murray said.

Asking questions such as whether the issue started with one group, whether it’s a common problem throughout farrowing, and whether it occurred in one section of the room can help speed up diagnosis.

Once the problem is diagnosed, treatment can begin, but it’s important to realize treatment is not a permanent solution, Murray said.

“Treatment buys us time to investigate the root cause of the scours and hopefully either fix the problem or eliminate it,” she added.

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