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Ask a Vet: The importance of calf electrolytes

Vicky Lauer for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 July 2018

There are several causes of calf scours, but fluid replacement via electrolytes is a requirement for all scours treatments. By simply reversing the dehydration, the calf can be saved without antibiotics.

IV fluids are the fastest way to correct dehydration, but they can be challenging to administer. Oral electrolytes are the easiest alternative.



Three keys to choosing an oral electrolyte:

1. Water is required to reverse dehydration. Electrolytes should be mixed with water according to the manufacturer’s directions and should never be mixed with milk because it will be too concentrated, which will make the scours worse and further dehydrate the calf.

2. Sodium and sugar (glucose) are the most important components of an electrolyte, besides water. Calves need both sodium and glucose to absorb water and other electrolytes. They should range between 90 to 145 mmol per liter/L. Avoid using sucrose as the sugar source, as calves cannot digest it, and it will make the diarrhea worse.

3. Use of a buffer, or alkalinizing agent, is important. Virtually every calf with diarrhea has a certain degree of acidosis, which is evident by a cold mouth, lack of suckle, or an inability to stand. A buffer will help bring the acid level down and restore a normal blood pH.

An electrolyte product should contain between 50 to 80 mmol per liter/L of a buffer. All buffers increase the absorption of other electrolytes, making the product more effective, but acetate is considered the best buffer for milk-fed calves.

Five tips for administering electrolytes:

  1. Most electrolyte replacers only provide 15 to 25 percent of the calf’s daily energy requirement; calves need to be fed milk in addition to electrolytes.

  2. Electrolytes should be offered at least twice a day, in addition to the normal milk feedings. If a calf is alert and able to drink, milk should always be offered first, followed by electrolytes.

  3. If a calf is down, IV fluids are usually required to rehydrate the calf and reverse the acidosis. Once a calf can suckle again, milk should be offered as soon as possible, and further dehydration can be corrected with oral electrolytes. A calf should never be kept off milk for more than 24 hours.

  4. Oral electrolytes can safely be given by stomach or esophageal tube to any age of calf. Milk should not be tubed to a calf over 7 days old, as the milk will sit and ferment in the rumen, making acidosis worse.

  5. Oral electrolyte solutions should never be given IV.  end mark
Vicky Lauer
  • Vicky Lauer

  • Professional Services Veterinarian
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