Ask the Vet

Milk Replacer Mistake

One reader treated a sick dairy calf by adding Gatorade to milk replacers. It's a classic case of bad advice from a well-intentioned, non-veterinarian.(Progressive Farmer photo by Victoria G. Myers)


We bought a calf from a dairy. It was 3 weeks old and was still on its mother when we picked him up. He had diarrhea as soon as we got him home. Our local farm-supply story was closed, so we went somewhere else and got milk replacer and scour boluses. They told me to give him half the normal amount of milk replacer mixed with a quart of Gatorade. He isn't improving.


Well, let me just say right up front, you got some bad advice.

Calves need to get the correct amount of high-quality milk replacer. This is what is required to meet the energy, protein and electrolytes needs of the animal. Giving anything less is starving the calf.

Also, electrolytes of any kind should never be mixed with milk replacer. When milk or milk replacer gets into the abomasum, or true stomach, the stomach acids and enzymes create what is called a rennin clot. This allows the calf to digest the milk fully. Electrolytes can actually stop this process, allowing the milk to get into the small intestines. This undigested milk can lead to worse diarrhea.

Most calf scours are due to either a metabolic upset or viruses. When bacteria are involved, they can be very difficult to kill and may even spread to humans. The antibiotics in most over-the-counter scour boluses have little chance of killing the most serious bacteria and, instead, often kill only the beneficial bacteria. This makes diarrhea worse.

So, in this case, bad advice led you to two incorrect treatments, both of which likely made the situation worse. Let me temper this by saying oral electrolytes are not bad. High-quality oral electrolytes should be the cornerstone of treating scours if dehydration is present. But, they should be given several hours before, or after, milk replacer. I also feel probiotics and bismuth subsalicylate (generic Pepto-Bismol) can be helpful in mild cases.

Calves should always be kept clean, dry and warm. Sick calves can benefit from IV (intravenous) fluids and antibiotics, but I strongly encourage you to call your herd veterinarian for any aggressive treatment.

As an aside, this isn't the first time I've had folks come to me about sick animals after they followed the recommendations of non-veterinarians. While they are well intentioned, remember that they aren't veterinarians. I'd encourage you to develop relationships with people and businesses you can trust for good advice, making sure one of those is a veterinarian. In this case a veterinarian could have saved unnecessary suffering for the animal, and unnecessary expense for you.