Give Life Back to Dehydrated Calves: Feeding Electrolytes the Right Way

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DSC_0242There may not be a magic bullet to help with scours in calves but adding electrolytes to their diet will help save their lives. When calves get scours they lose a lot of water and minerals. With diarrhea being the leading health concern with calves, adding electrolytes will be the most beneficial.

Antibiotics can help, but only kills the bacteria that infected the calf. Calves with scours lose a tremendous amount of fluid. Just giving antibiotics doesn’t help with the dehydration the calf faces, but adding extra fluids will help replenish the calf. A 100-pound calf needs about 10 percent of her body weight in fluids. A normal calf will drink four to five liters of fluids. When dehydration hits, a calf needs help to catch up on the fluids they are losing. This is where the electrolytes come in.

Signs of scours:

One good indicator to see if the calf is dehydrated is to check her eyes. If you notice her eyes have sunken in, she is already sick and dehydrated. The more sunken the eyes, the worse she is. You also can take the skin on the back of her neck and pinch it. If it takes longer than two seconds to flatten, you are more than likely dealing with a dehydrated calf.  Note the tables to help you figure out how dehydrated the calf might be:

How dehydrated is the calf?

Dehydration Attitude Sunken eye Skin tent duration





Normal to slightly depressed (still standing)


Very depressed, can’t stand, no suckle reflex


2-4 mm

4-6 mm

6-8 mm


1-3 seconds

2-5 seconds

5-10 seconds


Dehydration Symptoms
Adapted from J. M. Naylor, Can. Vet. J.
5–6% Diarrhea, no clinical signs, strong suckling reflex
6–8% Mild depression, skin tenting 2-6 seconds, calf still suckling, sunken eyes, weak
8–10% Calf depressed, laying down, eyes very sunken, dry gums, skin tenting >6 seconds
10–14% Calf will not stand, coolextremities, skin won’t flatten when tented, comatose
Over 14% Death

Feeding Electrolytes:

Electrolytes can be fed by given them orally or through an IV. The best way to figure out what method you should do is figure out what stage of dehydration the calf is in from the tables above. If you believe the calf is less than an 8% dehydrated and you caught the problem right away, go ahead and feed the oral electrolytes.

When figuring out how much electrolyte to feed, it is best to determine the weight (or estimated weight) of the calf.  Then follow the equation below to detemine how many quarts to feed.

Weight x percent dehydration= lbs. of electrolytes that needs to be fed

Lbs. of electrolytes/2=quarts needed to be fed 

 If you are still questioning the amounts, you can use the table below to help you.  

electrolyte solution chart

If the calf is more than 8% dehydrated, you have to IV her. When you are dealing with calves that are really dehydrated, you might want to also consider giving some antibiotics to help with the problem. Note: this is based on the protocol the manager has set up or what the vet/manager of the calves believes will be best for the calf. If the calf is not standing, and is looking really sick, notify your vet to help you come up with the best protocol for this calf. Also, when giving the IV to the calf, it wouldn’t hurt to have the vet come in and check up on her to make sure you are doing what’s best for her.

Electrolytes are not made to replace any meal for a calf. Even though there are electrolytes on the market that are labelled to be fed in milk, they do not solve the problem. These electrolytes replace minerals, but it doesn’t provide the calf with the extra fluid it needs. It is highly recommended not to use these types of electrolytes because they don’t help with dehydration. Electrolytes are used as an extra source between feedings to help give the calf more fluid to fight dehydration.

Feeding electrolytes is important for helping the calf recover from diarrhea. Electrolytes help restore fluids and minerals the calf is losing in the manure. Scours is a serious problem in calves and by adding electrolytes to the diet you will keep them alive. Contact your ANC consultant to help you determine a plan for feeding electrolytes when your calves show the first sign of dehydration.

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