Fluids to dehydrated/scouring calves

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Nov 8, 2004
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I was given a freebie this morning (week old? Holstein bull calf), scouring and possibly more dead than alive, and over the course of the day learned some new things I thought y'all might be interested in.

After bringing him home, I ran 2000mLs of lactated ringers IV with dextrose, dexamethasone, and vitamin B complex -- and his skin still took 4 seconds to return to normal following tenting even after 2000mLs. I shadow at a local vet clinic on Fridays, so I called and asked if I could bring him with me for the day. So... I took him with me to the clinic and we ran another 1000mLs IV of lactated ringers, then a gallon of distilled water with sodium bicarb IV. Almost 6800mLs of fluid IV. Now he's finally beginning to look hydrated; skin returns to normal in 2 seconds, he drank a half bottle of milk tonight eagerly, and he's standing and walking. Not normal yet, but he's getting there.

The interesting things I learned today -- what a LOT of fluid it took to hydrate that calf! :eek:: I'd initially figured 3000mLs max would probably do it, but it took more than double that.

The distilled water w/sodium bicarb was fascinating. I guess I'd always thought water was much too hypotonic and would kill an animal, but mixed with sodium bicarb it seems to be fine. Tap water won't work, but distilled water is close enough to sterile water to run IV. Wonder what else you can mix with distilled water and run IV....? I shall have to ask.

*Note that sodium bicarb is the treatment for acidosis; what this means is that if you have a cow with grain overload who looks really bad, rather than going orally with sodium bicarb, you could potentially run a distilled water/sodium bicarb solution to get a quicker response.*

For running the distilled water w/sodium bicarb, we just cut a top corner off the bag of lactated ringers and poured the distilled water in that way. Not exactly "sterile" technique, but it doesn't seem to be an issue, at least not for calves.

The catheter was the best part; I tried putting a normal IV catheter in and I had no idea how tough it was to use a normal IV catheter! I've always used a regular needle for IVs. We couldn't get a normal IV catheter to stay put, so we ended up using a 14 gauge x1" needle to get in the vein, then ran a 14cm tom cat (urinary) catheter through the needle, taped both together and then taped it all around the calf's neck. Worked REALLY well. I brought home a couple 14 gauge needles and tom cat catheters to keep in my stash at home. Never know when I might need them!

Moral of today's adventure... stay on top of scour problems and keep them from getting so bad the calf has to go on IV fluids, because it's pretty well an all-day task to rehydrate them. :p Lotta work for a worthless Holstein bull calf, but anytime I learn things like I did today it's well worth the work and the price.
Very interesting MM.

I had read somewhere that it took a LOT of liquid to rehydrate a really dehydrated calf, kind of had a hard time believing it at the time it seemed so outlandish (7-8 litres into a 90 lb calf). From your story I guess it must be true.

We've treated some bad calves orally, never have done a IV, but we try to get to them before they are so bad oral won't work.

Thanks for the info.
For sure you got to treat calves at first sign.
Would have over the counter electrolytes worked on this calf? Or to far gone?
If a person had to pay a vet bill for this calf, it would clearly be a losing proposition.
Here he is this morning:


randi -- it sounded like a lot to me too, but having seen how much fluid went into this calf before seeing a response, I'm now a little amazed by what it takes to rehydrate them.

mnm -- he was too far gone initially; the digestive system won't absorb fluids at a certain level of dehydration. I've got a little bit of a vet bill for this guy, but not bad. I think maybe 10-15 bucks of supplies. I didn't take him to the vet clinic to have them treat him, I took him there so I could treat him while I was shadowing vets for the day. :p IMO paying $10-15 to learn what I learned today was well worth it.
LOL Jeanne... I don't know where I'll be living after I get that license.

FYI: I just talked to my vet this morning, and he said at 10% dehydration the digestive system no longer absorbs fluids. Just in case anyone was curious on the actual numbers.
Hard to believe that pic is the same little guy in your thread.
Sounds like he is battling ecoli. I find as well that when they decide to scour that badly an IV is the only way to even have a chance at winning. My friends/neighbors who dairy use that same cocktail for an IV , what is the dosage of NAH203 solution is it 5% as what is used on acidotic cases or a different ratio ?
HD -- I haven't calculated it yet. We used 7tbsp of baking soda to 1 gallon of distilled water, so whatever % that comes out to.

The cows that I've seen with grain overload were scouring really badly too, so I'd presume that whatever % sodium bicarb you'd use for a scouring cow would be the same as you'd use for a scouring calf. They're the same species and it's the same problem (acidosis). I'll check on that though.

I think the problem with this calf wasn't initially that he was scouring that badly, it was that he's a Holstein bull calf, and it's hard to get $25/hd for them right now. He got treated once and then forgotten. By the time I heard about him he was slightly more dead than alive. He's looking pretty good right now, and interestingly enough, once he went on the IV his manure firmed right up. It's really close to normal this morning. I don't know if there's a logical explanation for that one or not.
Good job MM ! The frustrating part of the job you've chosen will be to convince people of what you have just learned. Most will quit raising calves before they learn how to rehydrate a calf.

milkmaid":gcwqezuy said:
it was that he's a Holstein bull calf, and it's hard to get $25/hd for them right now.

Where I live, you would expect to pay $100-$150 for a calf like pictured above($100 for 1 day to a week, then $150 after that)... But thats very interesting information, and a good thing to know...
He's looking no' too bad for a resurrected calf. Interesting.

I don't know how dehydrated they usually are when they're too weak to stand, but I get the impression it's not unheard of for farmers to bring them round with oral fluids alone - I have one I call Ghostie, and as soon as I told my new vet why she was called that he pretty much guessed how I'd saved her.
7 - 8 litres for a 90 lb calf sounds about right.

My electrolyte mix comes to 5% sodium bicarb (10 grams in 2 litres), 2.5% salt but I've seen recipes that reverse those (making only 2.5% sodium bicarb). 7 tbsp to a gallon is several times that strength - actually; depending what a tablespoon measure is in the US, it'll be close to seven times.
Yup, I would say that saving the calf and knowing you can bring back a calf that far gone is worth a LOT!
Good information, Thanks.
I ran across some info on dehydration in the recent Dairy Herd Managment magazine...

  • Primer on electrolytes for oral rehydration

    Oral rehydration solutions help replenish fluids and electrolytes lost during the course of diarrhea.

    According to "Electrolytes for Dairy Calves" by Sylvia Kehoe, University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and Jud Heinrichs, of Penn State University, these solutions are designed to improve the acid-base balance by providing electrolytes and water. Although easy to use, neonatal calf diarrhea is still a major cause of death.

    There are two main types of scouring in neonatal calves — nutritional and pathogenic. Nutritional scours are caused by some sort of stress, such as changing brands of milk replacer, changing from waste milk to milk replacer, transport, weather, vaccinations, or dehorning, and are usually temporary. Pathogenic scours can be caused by any bacteria or virus. Infection can occur from contact with other calves, through workers handling the calves and through the environment.

    Calves can lose 5 percent to 10 percent of their bodyweight due to water loss within one day of scouring. Fluid loss above 8 percent requires intravenous treatment, and above 14 percent can result in death. The amount of water lost can be approximated by skin tenting, gum condition, attitude and ability to suckle.

    To evaluate dehydration using skin tenting, pinch a fold of skin and count the seconds it takes to flatten. Less than two seconds indicates normal hydration. Two to six seconds indicates 8 percent dehydration. Greater than six seconds indicates severe dehydration — more than 10 percent. Normal gum condition is indicated by pink, damp gums. Dehydration causes white, dry gums, indicating 8 percent to 10 percent dehydration.

    To be effective, oral rehydration solutions should contain all of the essential components needed to stay hydrated, including water, sodium, glucose, glycine, alkalizing agents, potassium, chloride and gelling agents. Water is the essential ingredient in a rehydrating solution. Sodium will promote water intake. Glucose aids in sodium absorption. Glycine has been shown to enhance the absorption of glucose. Alkalizing agents will decrease metabolic acidosis and may provide some energy. Potassium and chloride are needed to maintain blood pH for muscle contractions, especially in the heart. Gelling agents can be added to coat inflamed intestinal mucosa.

    from: http://www.dairyherd.com/calfheifer.asp ... ed_id=8398

I wish our Holstein bull calves were worth that much, Josh. A few years ago we could get $150-200 for bull calves, but not right now. Saw an ad recently for $20/ea OBO. Hopefully the market comes back up soon.

Larry -- that just seems so strange. Rehydrating that calf did take a fair bit of time, and then I had keep checking the catheter to make sure it was in and not clogged, but all in all it wasn't really that hard. Perhaps my inability to comprehend people not being willing to learn how to treat a calf stems from my inability to watch a calf die without doing something to try to save it. :p
The majority of producers I know will do whatever it takes to pull an animal through and are willing to learn anything as well that will help them and their operation ,as long as there is someone willing to teach them..

The problem is that not all of us have great vets, those of us that do are really really lucky. My vet is willing to show me how to do anything and when he is out to do something new I watch and ask tons of questions so I am prepared to do it myself next time which is fine with him as he is very very busy and doesn't want to come out for every little thing ,as well as he wants me to make money in this business. The problem with doing an IV of fluids is that it is a little tricky to find the vein etc. also you need to make sure they do not fidget and lose the IV ,not every vet will give you saline bags and IV caths..Most vets will say bring the calf in which could cost you a few hundred dollars and you cannot break even with those costs so they choose to do their best at home or do nothing.

I am fully prepared to do IV's here but thankfully I haven't had to in a long while.
I forgot to ask MM or maybe I missed it where you typed it but how long did it take to get a gallon of fluids in him once you started the drip ?
HD -- I hadn't put that down. Due to issues with losing the vein, forgetting to keep an eye on the fluids and the catheter getting clogged when the fluids ran out, catheter and IV line separating, etc (I didn't have any experience with catheters and so I had to redo it multiple times, lol) I'm not certain how long it would actually take to run each bag. :p I did note that when I ran the first bags of fluid at home with just a rigid 18 gauge needle and the line all the way open, it took about 15-20 minutes per bag. With the tom cat catheter I described, it slowed the flow to about half, so I'd guess that I was running about 1000mLs/40 minutes? somewhere around there. I'll time it next time.

The nice thing about the tom cat catheter with 14 gauge needle, was that the catheter extended approx 2-3 inches beyond the needle into the vein, so it stayed very, very nicely.

My vet's been really good about giving me anything I want and teaching me anything I ask him to teach me. But then, it's a lot easier for him to supply me with whatever I want than to work on every minor problem I come up with. :p
Update FYI -- I took the calf back to the dairy last night since he looked like he was going to be fine, and just came back from checking on him tonight. He looks great. He promptly jumped to his feet when I came to the door of his calf hutch, and was eagerly looking for a bottle. :D

Makes me feel pretty good to see that. :)
You know I always loved that part of the dairy and most of my babies were the same; they would be laying down waiting . I think if they had them they would be thumping their fingers and be saying "OK, anytime now mom"..BUT never bawling, until I came in with their bottle and then they would jump up, tails wagging ,and the bawling would start..

That was the best part of the day for me..besides going into the freestall barn at night and seeing all the girls lined up, laying down with their heads in the right direction and either sleeping or eyes closed and chewing their cud,,you know you have a group of contented milking machines.. :D
Newborn holstein bulls calves in this area are practically worthless, that's why most dairies won't waste time or money trying to do anything to one with any kind of problem, unless they are subject to registration and they plan to raise them up to be herd bulls. Otherwise they'll simply let them die or haul them to the salebarn and get from $5 to $25 per calf.
randiliana":4d9servl said:
Very interesting MM.

I had read somewhere that it took a LOT of liquid to rehydrate a really dehydrated calf, kind of had a hard time believing it at the time it seemed so outlandish (7-8 litres into a 90 lb calf). From your story I guess it must be true.

We've treated some bad calves orally, never have done a IV, but we try to get to them before they are so bad oral won't work.

Thanks for the info.

Usually they need fluids IV for many days in a row, and even then its very hard to save a calf severely dehydrated, especially in the hot months.


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