Electrolytes are chemical elements or minerals that form ions – charged elements that conduct electrical impulses in bodily fluids. They are critical for the normal function of all cells within the body such as keeping the heart pumping and muscles moving. Sodium, calcium, potassium, chloride, phosphate, and magnesium are all electrolytes and these elements are present in the foods our pets eat or the water they drink. The balance of these elements can become too low, or too high in the body and cause issues.
So when should we be considering using a electrolyte solution and what is the evidence that supports their use in cases of electrolyte disturbances? When should you call the vet? Let’s dive a little deeper into electrolyte disturbances and how they are treated.
What are the signs of electrolyte disturbances?
As mentioned above, electrolytes are vital to the function of the body. If your pet has very high or very low levels of one or more electrolytes, symptoms may include:
- Irregular heartbeat
- Muscle twitching
- Weak or fractured bones
- Difficulty breathing
If you notice any of these symptoms, please seek veterinary attention immediately. Do not try and medicate at home. Electrolyte disturbances are diagnosed through a blood test and some may require advanced veterinary care that cannot be provided at home.
What causes electrolyte disturbances?
- Decreased intestinal absorption as a result of vomiting, diarrhea, intestinal inflammation, phosphate binding medications, Vitamin D deficiency or a dietary deficiency
- Phosphate excretion through urine due to diabetes, hyperparathyroidism, adrenal disorders, Cushing’s disease, kidney disease, hypercalcemia or use of diuretics
- Excessive cellular intake due to xylitol poisoning, refeeding syndrome, or respiratory alkalosis
Does your pet need a supplement?
With the above in mind, I rarely recommend oral rehydration solutions other than in very limited cases. These are primarily when there is uncomplicated diarrhea or vomiting present, the patient has diabetes or kidney disease (and not on any medications that are causing the disturbances) or the patient is anorexic as starvation can rapidly trigger an electrolyte imbalance. In all cases, it is incredibly important that you seek your veterinarian’s opinion before supplementing with an electrolyte solution as not all conditions will benefit from a oral rehydration solution – and some may be better controlled with medications or dietary change.
When you should avoid using electrolytes
I would never recommend using electrolyte solutions in healthy pets that are eating and drinking normally, and are not experiencing any losses through diarrhea or vomiting. There’s a growing trend of providing oral rehydration solutions to athletic or working dogs; the current research available to us does not show it makes any significant difference to the pet’s hydration status or their electrolyte balance. While it isn’t deemed harmful, it’s more than likely a waste of money; pets when hard at work or in hot, humid environments do have some losses through sweating but not to the same degree that humans do. They pet will drink more of the solution due to its flavour, but its unlikely to have any significant impact on their health either way. I also recommend against using oral rehydration solutions in pets with urinary conditions or that are on urinary diets, as the diet carefully controls the electrolyte balance to reduce precipitation and super saturation of the urine triggering stones.
What products to use
Always use veterinary products where possible. While you can use Pedialyte, it’s better to use an animal specific solution as the balance of electrolytes in the solution is more specific to pets and their needs, rather than humans. The biggest issue with using human products is the levels of sodium and phosphorus can be too high for dogs and cats, especially if used for an extended period of time, and cause issues with excesses. There’s a growing market for veterinary products, even specific ones for different conditions (renal disease) which provide hydration without contributing to the severity condition, so I would ask for a veterinary recommendation on what product to use before supplementing.
What about ‘natural’ electrolyte solutions?
Products such as coconut water, while they may contain electrolytes, are potentially harmful to pets as they contain high levels of phosphorus which can impact the kidneys and cause more problems than they solve. There’s very limited studies of the use of coconut water in dogs, and majority focus on using it as an intravenous infusion, not oral rehydration. Again, I would always recommend a specifically formulated veterinary product rather than a DIY solution.
Have you ever used an electrolyte solution? Has your pet ever experienced an electrolyte disturbance? Let us know about your experience in the comments below!