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High-quality electrolytes are crucial for treating diarrhea in calves

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Published on Feb. 29, 2020

During the Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days in Riverton Feb. 5-6, Dr. Katlyn Tomschin, from the Stock Doc Veterinary Services in Riverton, discussed the causes and treatments for calf diarrhea and encouraged producers to spend the extra money on high-quality electrolytes. 

            “Diarrhea is important in calves because it is one of the top five causes of calf mortality, causing 11.5 percent of deaths,” Tomschin stated. 

Causes of diarrhea

            “If we are going to discuss calf diarrhea, it’s important to touch on the causes of diarrhea for each age group so producers have a rough idea of what they are dealing with,” Tomschin said. “We need to recognize, regardless of the infectious cause, we are going to be treating a lot of these diarrheas the same because they will all present with dehydration and possibly some acid-base imbalances.” 

            From there, Tomschin listed the most common causes of diarrhea for each age group.

            She notes E. coli infects newborn calves up to four days of age.

            “Crypto shows up around five to 25 days,” Tomschin said. “We also see colstridial infections hit around five to 10 days.”

            Tomschin said salmonella infects calves two to six weeks of age.

            “We usually see rotaviral and coronaviral diarrhea together and they usually peak around six days, although they can infect calves up to several weeks,” she explained. 

            Tomschin also noted coccidia usually infects calves four months and older, and producers won’t always see blood. 


            “At the end of the day, when treating for diarrhea, we are going to be treating for two things – dehydration and acidosis,” Tomschin explained. “Acidosis is the main factor we need to consider when choosing oral electrolytes because not all electrolytes are created equal.” 

            Tomschin noted dehydration causes electrolyte imbalances leading to acidosis. She also noted dehydration can lead to hypothermia and in some cases, it can wipe out the intestinal lining.

            Therefore, she stressed the importance of catching and treating dehydration as early as possible.  She then offered some things to look for to catch dehydration in calves.

            “One thing producers can look for is eyeball recession,” explained Tomschin. “If they are recessed two to four millimeters (mm), they are six to eight percent dehydrated and slightly depressed. If they are recessed four to six mm, they are eight to 10 percent dehydrated and depressed. If the eyes are recessed six to eight mm, they are 10 to 12 percent dehydrated and comatose.”

            “Once we get to 12 percent or more dehydration, the chances of getting the calf back up and going are very slim,” she added.

            The other way producers can determine dehydration is through skin tenting. 

            Tomschin explained a skin tent of one to two mm means they are six to eight percent dehydrated, a skin tent of two to five mm means they are eight to 10 percent dehydrated and a skin tent of five to 10mm means they are 10 to 12 percent dehydrated. 

            “It is a tough job to catch dehydration early on, but there are definitely incentives,” Tomschin noted. “It can be the difference between treating with oral electrolytes at home or the calf needing an IV to survive.”

Electrolyte recommendations   

            When it comes to treating scours and dehydration, Tomschin encouraged producers to spend the extra money on high-quality electrolytes.

            “Unfortunately, price and quality don’t always go together when it comes to electrolytes,” she said. “However, the cheapest electrolyte on the shelf or an at home remedy are not good options.”

            “Oral electrolytes were invented in the 1960s to treat children with cholera, so the mainstay of oral electrolytes on the market are based off of a human model,” Tomschin explained. “There are a lot of good things about this, but the ways calves are different from human children are often overlooked.” 

            Tomschin noted one of these differences is that calves become acidotic, while children don’t. Therefore, most oral electrolytes don’t contain a bicarbonate or alkalinizing agent.

            “Some producers try Pedialyte or other human-based electrolytes, but calves cannot properly metabolize the rice polymers in them,” she explained. “Zinc is also a big component of human electrolytes but isn’t as important for calves, and too much potassium doesn’t affect children but it can affect calves.”

            Therefore, Tomschin explained what makes a good oral electrolyte for dehydrated calves. 

            “A good oral electrolyte must have adequate sodium, which is something we can find on the label,” she said. “Sodium is the backbone of the extracellular matrix, meaning it is necessary for the body to absorb and retain water. If we are putting electrolytes in calves that don’t have adequate sodium concentrations, we can give them all of the water we want, but they won’t be able to absorb and utilize it.” 

            “A good oral electrolyte must also have an alkalinizing agent to help reverse acidosis,” she added. “The best ones are sodium bicarbonate and acetate, with acetate being superior. Although acetate works quicker, sodium bicarbonate is still a good option. This is like baking soda.”

            Tomschin also noted a good oral electrolyte must have a source of glucose.

            “There are a ton of electrolyte options when we go to the store, but I recommend three brands – BlueLite Replenish M, Diaque and Land O Lakes Electrolite,” Tomschin said. “These are the the three best scientifically backed brands as far as research goes, and they all have an alkalinizing agent which is critical.” 

            Tomschin then noted it takes a lot of fluid to get calves back on their feet, especially if they are at the point of needing an IV. In fact, according to Tomschin, calves need four to six liters of fluid just to get up and going. 

            “That is a lot of liquid to put in an 80 to 100 pound calf,” she stated. “However, whether producers are giving electrolyte orally or we are sending it through an IV at the vet, we need to remember to give it to them at a slow rate.” 

            With this in mind, Tomschin recommends giving the full dose of oral electrolyte over a few hours, instead of all at once. She explained the drip rate for IV electrolytes ultimately depends on the size of the calf but averages 60 milliliters per hour.

            Hannah Bugas is the assistant editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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