Electrolyte solutions, given promptly and consistently, can mean the difference between life and death for young calves suffering from scours, or severe diarrhea. But it's not enough to simply give a scouring calf some water to replace lost fluids. Plain water would primarily go through the sick calf's system unabsorbed. The calf's intestinal tract can absorb the electrolytes, consisting of salts and fluids, allowing the animal to rehydrate.
Within just one day of experiencing serious diarrhea, a calf can lose between 5 percent and 10 percent of his body weight, all consisting of fluids. If he loses more than 8 percent of the fluids in his body, intravenous fluid therapy is required. If he suffers a loss of 14 percent or greater, he's likely to die. The faster he receives electrolytes and intravenous treatment, the better the prognosis. Signs of excess fluid loss include inability to nurse or stand properly, pale gums and skin retention. Pinch a section of the calf's skin to see how fast it reverts to normal. If it doesn't revert within two to six seconds, the calf is dehydrated.
Commercial Preparations and Homemade
If you're raising calves, it's a good idea to keep commercial electrolyte solutions on hand. When you're purchasing electrolytes, make sure the product is intended for use in calves. All commercial electrolyte solutions for calves should contain sodium, chloride and potassium. They also contain glucose, dextrose or glycine, with most including an alkaline agent. The sugars aid the small intestine in electrolyte absorption. Mix the preparation with warm water according to package instructions. The University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service website offers a recipe for a homemade electrolyte solution when commercial electrolytes aren't available in an emergency situation. It consists of one package of fruit pectin, 1 teaspoon of light salt, 2 teaspoons of baking soda, a can of chicken stock or consomme and enough warm water to create 2 quarts of solution.
A calf with a relatively minor case of scours might require electrolyte administration just once a day, with careful monitoring. More serious cases might need electrolytes every six hours. If a calf can suckle, you can administer the electrolyte solution via a bottle with a calf nipple available at a farm supply store. If the calf isn't capable of suckling, you'll need to get the fluids into him with an esophageal feeder, a tube into the stomach. Calves require electrolytes until their feces firm up and they are again strong enough to nurse. Most calves recover sufficiently in a day or two, but some might require treatment for several days.
Warnings and Considerations
The Iowa Beef Center website warns it's crucial to mix the correct concentration of electrolytes, not making the solution stronger or weaker than necessary for the particular animal. Adding excessive amounts of electrolytes can cause salt poisoning, because of too much salt or bicarbonate in the solution. If the calf has difficulty standing or suckling, he should receive milk as well as the electrolyte solution. Don't feed the two together, but allow an interval of at least two hours between them. It doesn't matter whether the milk or the electrolytes are fed first.
- Savacaf: Calf Care Volume 1.06 Caring for a Sick Calf
- University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service: ASC-161 Feeding and Managing Baby Calves From Birth to 3 Months of Age
- Iowa Beef Center: Treatment of Sick Calves
- Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food: Electrolyte Treatment for Scouring Dairy Calves
- Beef Magazine: All About Oral Electrolytes
Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.