Choosing an Electrolyte

Choosing an Electrolyte

Greater than 60% of all calves that die before weaning, in both the beef and dairy industries, die from complications as a result of diarrhea. It’s not usually the pathogen causing the diarrhea itself that kills the animal. Sometimes the animal may die from secondary bacterial infections, or even starve to death if scouring for a prolonged period of time, but most commonly calves will die from dehydration and/or metabolic acidosis caused by the condition. 

Most calves will turn around if they stay hydrated and acidosis can be prevented.  It is essential to detect signs of dehydration early for the best chance that the calf will pull through. See our previous blog post for more information on detecting dehydration and establishing an oral electrolyte protocol.

Oral electrolyte solutions (OES) have been used for 50-60 years, and were first introduced to treat cholera in children. The same principles can be applied in creating an OES for calves, but due to the fact that calves have less body reserves than humans and experience severe dehydration and metabolic acidosis much more quickly, formulation of effective calf electrolytes differ from that of electrolyte solutions such as Gatorade, Pedialyte, etc. designed for humans. 

When calves scour, they lose water and electrolytes in the manure and these need to be replaced. OES can be administered to correct dehydration, reestablish electrolyte balance, correct acidosis, and provide nutritional support.

Essential Ingredients 

There is great variation in OES for calves across North America and around the world. Many electrolytes are modeled after World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations for humans, and may not be the best choice when treating calves. When choosing a calf electrolyte be sure to read the label and identify the following necessary ingredients.

  • Sodium, to correct dehydration.
  • Glycine, acetate, or glucose to aid in transportation of sodium across the gut barrier.
  • Alkalizing agents (bases), which are usually attached to sodium are important to correct acidosis. These include acetate, citrate, propionate, or bicarbonate.
  • Potassium and Chloride are needed to maintain blood pH and aid in muscle contractions.
  • Glucose to supply energy to the calf.

Always practice cleanliness when mixing and handling the solution in a manner that does not introduce even more pathogens to the sick calf.

Below is a chart comparing electrolyte ingredient recommendations from the WHO versus what is recommended for calves. 


Electrolyte Recommendations



WHO Recommendations

Calf Recommendations

Sodium (mEq/L)



Chloride (mM/L)



Potassium (mM/L)



Base (mM/L)



Glucose (mM/L)



Total Osmolality (mOsm/L)



(Source: Dr. Geof Smith, North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine)

Gelling Agents

Some electrolytes may contain gelling agents. These gelling agents are used to help the feces appear firmer. Gelling agents could include guar gum, pectin, or psyllium. The idea is to slow emptying of the gut, with the attempt to increase nutrient absorption. However, studies have not shown any benefit to using these gelling agents. 


Remember, most diarrhea scours are induced by a viral or protozoa pathogen. Ideally, it is best to allow it to run its course and correct the dehydration. Identify illness early and replenish electrolytes. Use an OES that will correct acid-base balance, and provide nutritional support. Put some thought into the type of product you choose for treatment, and consult your veterinarian for any other treatment that may be needed.


Written by: Mariah Gull, M.S.

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