Many current OES formulations have a high osmolality, making them unsafe for treatment.

Dehydration and metabolic acidosis associated with calf diarrhoea is the leading cause of neonatal calf mortality. Oral electrolyte solutions (OES) are commonly used to treat this problem, but many of the formulations currently used have an osmolality which is too high. In a study by Wilms et al[1,2], the effect of OES osmolality (as driven by sugars and minerals) on prevention and correction of metabolic acidosis was studied in calves with naturally occurring diarrhoea.

Key takeaways from the research:

  • Oral electrolyte with a similar strong ion difference (SID) do not always have a similar alkalizing capacity

  • OES with lower sodium and sugar levels are better able to restore and maintain blood pH compared to hypertonic OES or warm water

  • Many commercial OES are incorrectly formulated because they are in high mineral content, resulting in a high osmolality which reduces their alkalinizing capacity

Materials and methods

A total of 72 calves suffering from diarrhoea were blocked on base access and divided into 4 groups which were treated as follows:

  • Hypertonic commercial OES with high sodium and high dextrose level (HD)
  • Isotonic OES with low sodium and low dextrose (LD)
  • Hypotonic OES with low sodium and low lactose (LL)
  • Control with warm water only (CON)

Each of the 3 OES treatments was formulated to have a strong ion difference (SID) of 76 mEq/L.


All OES maintained a normal blood pH while blood pH remained lower than 7.34 for control calves (see Figure 1).

Calves fed HD did however have a significantly lower blood pH compared to calves fed LL at d 4 and 5 ( < 0.5) and to calves fed LD at d 5 (P < 0.05). Control calves had a lower blood base excess than LD and LL calves from d 2 to 5 (P < 0.01) and lower than HD calves at d 3 and d 4 (P < 0.05, see Figure 2).

Faecal water loss was higher in the HD treatment compared to LD and LL treatments (see Figure 3).


Despite being formulated to have a similar alkalinizing capacity, OES with a lower sodium and lower sugar levels were better able to restore blood pH compared to hypertonic OES or warm water. OES with high mineral content may interfere with the alkalinizing capacity of the solution. Our data therefore indicates that OES with a lower osmolality are more appropriate for diarrheic calves for prevention and correction of metabolic acidosis.

Download the article


  • [1] Wilms, J, Engelking, L, Leal, L, Doelman, J and J. Martín-Tereso, 2018, Tonicity of oral electrolyte solutions, ADSA Discover Conference, Chicago. [2] Wilms, J, Echeverry-Munera, J,Leal, L.N and J. Martín-Tereso, 2019, Smart Calf conference Guelph.