Electrolyte treatment for scouring dairy calves


Source: Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

Scours in calves can be caused by any of several viruses, bacteria and protozoa. Three of the most common are E. coli, rotavirus and corona virus but these are many other but less causes of scours. Even though there are many different causes, all calves that get scours lose their body water and salts in the diarrhea. The main reason why calves die from scours is that they lose so much of their body water in the scours that they go into shock. If the shock isn’t treated, the calves may die.

The best way to reduce the impact of scours on your farm is to prevent calves from getting scours in the first place. If your calves get scours, you need to know what to do.

Scours are a big problem when very young calves (less than a week old) get sick. In only a few hours, these very young calves can lose so much body water that you won’t be able to treat them fast enough to prevent them from going into shock. If you have a scours problem on your farm, you will have to check very young calves often to make sure they aren’t too sick before you can treat them.

Giving electrolytes is the most effective and most important treatment for scouring calves. As a general rule, you should treat all scouring calves with “electrolytes”. The electrolyte solutions you can buy are specially formulated to provide the salts that calves lose with scours. When the calf’s intestines absorb the salts in the electrolyte solutions, it also absorbs the water in the solution. If you fed the calf only water rather than an electrolyte solution, the calf won’t be able to absorb the water. Almost all the water would pass right through the calf.

There are recipes to make home made electrolyte for treating scouring calves but it is difficult to get the right ingredients. Most producers buy prepared electrolytes as concentrated solutions in jugs or as packets of powder. Although manufactures conduct research to continuously improve their electrolyte products or make their products unique, almost all electrolyte solutions will work if the calf gets them early enough and gets enough of them. Some electrolyte solutions work better in some situations than in others so if you are getting a poor response to treatment, you should seek the advise of your veterinarian about treatment.

You have to be careful when you buy electrolytes that you buy electrolytes that are intended to treat calves and other animals with diarrhea. These products should state in their INDICATIONS section of the label that they are intended to replace the salts and water that are lost in calves with diarrhea. The 1995 edition of the Canadian Compendium of Veterinary Products lists 19 electrolyte products for treating calves with scours. They are:

  • Calf-lyte
  • Calf-lyte II
  • Calf-lyte II HE
  • Electrate
  • Electrocarb-10
  • Electrolytes Concentrated (Austin)
  • Electrolytes Concentrated (Dispar)
  • Hydra
  • Ion Aid ®
  • Ionalyte
  • Life Guard HE
  • Life Guard Twin Pack
  • Life-Pak
  • Mineralytes Oral Solution
  • Oralytes
  • Oralytes HE
  • Pro-lyte
  • Resorb
  • Revibe ®
  • Revibe ® HE
  • V-Lytes
  • V-Lytes HE

Follow the mixing directions on the package when you prepare the electrolytes solutions. Remember to mix electrolytes in warm rather than cold or hot water. 

[When properly mixed, all electrolyte solutions for treating scouring calves contain sodium at 70 to 120 mEq/l, chloride at 40-80 mEq/l and potassium at 10-20 mEq/l. All but a few contain an alkalinizing agent at 40-80 mEq/l. All contain glycine, dextrose, glucose or “a protein concentrate” to promote the uptake of electrolytes in the small intestine.]

Producers looking for electrolytes to treat calves should be warned that there are other types of electrolytes for sale that are not intended to be used to treat scouring calves. These electrolytes are intended to be fed as supplements in drinking water or milk replacer. They are usually less expensive that electrolytes for treating scours and you can usually find them in feed stores. Unfortunately, they don’t have enough salts in them to be useful in treating scouring calves. How can you recognize these “electrolyte supplements”? It can be tough but almost always these products have directions recommending that they be diluted in large volumes of water (sometimes up to 80 gallons!) or that only one or two spoonfuls of powder be added to water. In the 1995 edition of the Canadian Compendium of Veterinary Products, the following products are listed as electrolyte supplements and should not be used to treat scouring calves:

  • Aqualites
  • Calf Electrolytes
  • Co-op Electrolytes plus
  • Electra caps
  • Electras
  • Electrolyte Tabs
  • Electrolytes
  • Electrolytes A/F
  • Electrolytes Plus
  • Electrovite
  • Elvit
  • Lyte powder
  • Mineralytes J Plus
  • Pro Aid
  • Stress-aid

Once you have selected which electrolytes you’re going to use to treat scouring calves, you need to determine how much to give and how often to give it. A good guideline is to follow the recommendations on the package. They usually recommend giving 1 to 2 liters (or quarts) of the electrolyte solution 2 to 3 times a day. This is usually enough but in very young calves you may need to give it more often. Most calves do well if they get 4 to 6 liters (quarts) of electrolyte solution in 24 hours. Treating at this rate assumes that the calf is left to nurse the cow too. Although opinions vary, I believe that scouring calves that want to suckle should be allowed to nurse the cow.

You can feed calves milk or replacer even if they have scours. They can still digest and get benefit from milk. Because the electrolytes can interfere with the digestion of milk, it’s best to alternate milk feedings with electrolyte feedings.

You can administer electrolytes by having the calf suck from a nipple bottle or drink from a pail. If they won’t drink or suck, you should be prepared to give electrolytes by passing a tube. The easiest way for most producers to pass a tube is to use an esophageal feeder.

An esophageal feeder is a long flexible plastic tube that has a bag for the electrolytes at one end and a short piece of stiff tubing with a ball-shaped ending at the other end. The stiffer section is passed along the roof of the calf’s mouth into the esophagus or gullet. The ball on the end of the feeder helps stop the tube from going in the wind pipe and helps prevent damage to the gullet. You should have the calf well restrained when you pass the tube. Pass almost all of the stiff part of the tube into the calf but don’t pass it all into the calf. Hold on to the upper few inches of the stiff section. After you pass the tube, check that you are in the right place before you give the electrolytes. If the tube is in the right place, you should be able to feel “two tubes” in the underside of the calf’s neck… one is the wind pipe and the other is the esophageal feeder.