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Electrolytes in Calves
Published: March 06, 2019

Diarrhea in young calves is a really common problem, and with the diarrhea, calves lose electrolytes that need to be replaced.  However, all electrolyte solutions are not equal.  Dr. Geof Smith indicates that a good oral electrolyte solution will have adequate sodium to correct dehydration; moderate osmolality which is basically concentration of the solution; and alkalinizing agents to treat the acidosis as most calves are acidotic or have a low blood pH. 

The most common alkalinizing agents are bicarbonate, acetate, propionate or citrate with acetate, and propionate is the best choice as it aids in water absorption in the calf’s intestine.  Both acetate and propionate produce energy in the calf’s intestine, which bicarbonate does not.  Also, it is important to not increase the pH in the calf’s fourth stomach compartment, which bicarbonate does, so it is really not a good choice.  The most common electrolytes that are low in these calves are sodium and chloride, so all electrolyte solutions need to contain adequate amounts of sodium and chloride.   Some calves with diarrhea may have low potassium if it they have been sick for a while, but calves with acute diarrhea may have high potassium levels.  Regardless, it is recommended to have potassium in the electrolyte solution.  The overall concentration of the solution should be slightly higher than that of plasma.  So, the best electrolyte product for calves would be one that does not contain glucose as you feed the calf milk or milk replacer for energy. Milk or milk replacer contains acetate or propionate for alkalinizing agents instead of bicarbonate, and is slightly more concentrated that the calf’s own plasma.  Talk with your vet about the correct electrolytes in these solutions.

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