Oral electrolytes play an indisputably important role in helping restore scouring and dehydrated calves to health and productivity.
But is one formulation as good as the next? North Carolina State University researcher Geof Smith, DVM, MS, PhD, ACVIM, and his colleagues have taken an in-depth look at the content and metabolic mechanisms of an array of commercial oral electrolyte solutions to find out.
Smith, who is associate professor in the Department of Population Health and Pathobiology at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, says he wanted to ultimately improve the outcomes of calves in need of oral electrolyte therapy. “We can and do tell producers to feed electrolytes to scouring calves, but are we providing them with the best possible information regarding what products to use and how to feed them?” he asks.
Guidelines for best products
Smith says the purpose of oral electrolyte therapy is to correct dehydration, correct acid-base and electrolyte abnormalities, and provide nutritional support. He describes the following characteristics of an “ideal” oral electrolyte product:
- Supplies sufficient sodium to correct extracellular fluid deficits.
- Provides neutral amino acids (glycine, alanine or glutamine) that facilitate intestinal absorption of sodium and water.
- Provides an alkalinizing agent (acetate, propionate, bicarbonate) to correct metabolic acidosis.
- Provides sufficient energy (glucose) to correct hypoglycemia.
- Facilitates a healthy gastrointestinal environment (doesn’t encourage microbial growth and/or encourages healing of damaged intestinal epithelium).
- Provides an excess of strong cations (sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium) relative to the concentration of strong anions (chloride, bicarbonate, D-lactate, organic acids).
To evaluate commercial oral electrolyte products, Smith advises following the recommended levels in Table 1. He notes that osmolality levels within the recommended range should be selected based on the individual calf’s milk-based diet. In general, he does not subscribe to the “rest the gut” theory that suggests scouring calves be taken off of milk-based diets and fed strictly electrolytes. “Oral electrolyte solutions — even those labeled ‘high energy’ — do not contain enough energy to sustain calves,” Smith says. “There is no proven benefit to withholding milk, and this strategy only will exacerbate further the animal’s state of negative energy balance.”