The sooner calf dehydration is detected, the more likely treatment will be effective. Mississippi State University’s Amelia Woolums, D.V.M., covered dehydration during her hands-on calf care presentation at the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin’s Annual Business Conference held in Madison, Wis.
The first step in rehydration is identifying when a calf is dehydrated. To do that, Woolums demonstrated one method, which includes pinching the skin on the calf’s neck. Pinch the skin, turn it 90 degrees, and then let go. In a well-hydrated calf, the skin should go flat in less than two seconds.
Another indicator of calf hydration is to look at the eyes. Woolums said to evaluate the space between the eyeball and the edge of the eye. “Make it a habit to look at the eyes,” Woolums noted.
If a calf’s eyes are sunken 3 millimeters (mm), and the skin tent lasts for five seconds, the calf is 6 percent dehydrated. If eyes are sunken 6 mm, and the skin tent lasts for seven seconds, it is 10 percent dehydrated. If eyes are sunken 8 mm and a skin tent lasts for more than 10 seconds, the calf is 12 percent dehydrated.
Once you identify a calf with dehydration, calculate how much fluid it needs. For example, Woolums said an 80-pound calf that is 6 percent dehydrated would need about 5 pints or 2.5 liters of fluid. (80-pound calf x 0.06 = 4.8 pounds, which is about 5 pints or 2.5 liters)
If the calf can stand and suck, fluids can be fed orally by bottle or esophageal feeder. She encouraged producers to talk with their veterinarian to determine a farm-specific protocol, but she said a generally good rule of thumb is to give half of the fluids immediately and half within the next 12 hours.
The type of fluids provided is also important. “Water is not enough for calves with diarrhea. They have to have electrolytes,” she said. Woolums indicated that there are dozens of options available, but “they are not all the same.”
She said you want an electrolyte that will counteract acidosis, which is particularly important for calves over 8 days of age as those are the ones that are most often acidotic. Good electrolytes contain bicarbonate, acetate, or something similar. Glucose is also important for helping sodium be absorbed. Sodium has to be absorbed for water to be absorbed, Woolums said.
If the calf can’t stand or won’t suck, it needs intravenous (IV) fluids. Woolums recommended contacting your veterinarian in these situations.
Whether it is dehydration or another ailment, attention to detail is a must to return calves to health quickly. “You miss more by not looking than by not knowing,” Woolums said. “It pays to look at the calves and their environment carefully every day.”