Dogs, like people, need a range of minerals to keep their bodies going. And, if you’ve been outside on a hot day, you know the thirst that comes with sweating and a lack of water. Most of us will reach for a sports drink to quench our thirst and restore the minerals lost through sweat. When it comes to our furry friends, however, their hydration needs aren’t quite the same. In fact, dogs lose few, if any, minerals when they pant and sweat. So what’s the deal with electrolytes for dogs?
Dog electrolytes can become imbalanced as a result of an illness. This can happen if your dog has kidney problems, hypothyroidism, or even some types of cancer. Each electrolyte imbalance causes its own host of symptoms in dogs, so it’s important to get your pooch to the vet if you see anything wrong. Your vet can diagnose your dog’s electrolyte imbalance with a blood test and restore their electrolytes to a normal level. Ready to find out more? Let’s get started.
What are Electrolytes?
Electrolytes are minerals with an electric charge when they dissolve into the body’s fluids, such as blood. The primary ions of electrolytes are potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, hydrogen phosphate, and hydrogen carbonate. Each electrolyte plays a crucial role in the body. For example, calcium, sodium, and potassium are necessary for muscle contractions. Without these electrolytes, the body may develop muscle weakness and severe muscle contractions. In general, though, electrolytes regulate the amount of fluid in your body, help your blood to clot, help to build new tissue, and transmit nerve signals. They also keep the pH of the blood in a normal range. In dogs, the roles of electrolytes are very similar. The way that they are lost is different, however. While people lose electrolytes easily in sweat, dogs lose very few when panting and sweating. So, an imbalance tends to suggest an underlying health problem that needs treatment.
An electrolyte imbalance happens when your dog has too much or too little of an electrolyte. Because electrolytes are so important for neurological function, fluid balance, and oxygen delivery, an imbalance of one or more of them can cause problems for your pooch. Each specific electrolyte disturbance comes with its own list of symptoms and has its own name. Here, we discuss some of the most common electrolyte imbalances in dogs. These include hypernatremia, hyponatremia, hyperkalemia, hypokalemia, hypocalcemia, and hypercalcemia.
Too much sodium in the blood (>155 mEq/L in dogs) leads to hypernatremia. Hypernatremia often causes nervous system signs, including lethargy, weakness, ataxia, seizures, and coma. But what causes too much sodium in the blood in dogs? Most commonly, dogs develop this imbalance because of water loss. This can be through diarrhea, vomiting, renal disease, and inadequate access to water. Other health problems like diabetes insipidus and fever can lead to this imbalance, too. Another common cause of hypernatremia is the ingestion of salt and seawater. If your dog takes in too much water, especially seawater, water toxicity can occur.
Hyponatremia happens when your dog’s blood serum levels of sodium are < 140 mmol/L. In dogs, hyponatremia almost always occurs because of an increase in total body water, rather than a loss of sodium. Abnormalities in your dog’s antidiuretic hormone (ADH), which is made in the pituitary gland, are very common findings. This hormone helps to maintain blood pressure and blood volume. Conditions like hypothyroidism, adrenal insufficiency, and ingestion of human painkillers can cause problems with it. Chronic hyponatremia thus leads to lethargy, ataxia, and weakness in all four legs. A severe, acute case can cause coma, seizures, and brain swelling. This makes sodium one of the most dangerous dog electrolytes for your dog to lack.
In dogs, hyperkalemia is rare when their renal function is normal. So, chronic hyperkalemia is almost always due to problems with renal function. However, it can also happen because of hyperadrenocorticism, urinary tract obstruction, crush injuries, and heat injuries like heat stroke and hyperthermia. Dogs with too much potassium in their blood often develop muscle weakness, usually when their serum potassium concentration goes above 8 mEq/L. Dogs with severe hyperkalemia like this will also show signs on electrocardiographs. It’s also worth noting that several Asian breeds, including Akitas, Shiba Inus, Jindos, and Shar Peis are prone to pseudohyperkalemia. This is hyperkalemia without any underlying renal problems. Dogs with pseudohyperkalemia have a greater potassium concentration in their red blood cells, which can come with or without mild anemia.
Hypokalemia occurs when your dog doesn’t have enough potassium in their blood. This imbalance is a manifestation of an underlying disease and is not a standalone diagnosis. Health problems like vomiting, chronic diarrhea, renal failure, diabetic ketoacidosis, burns, and anorexia may lead to a loss of potassium in the blood. In dogs, signs like muscle weakness, rear leg weakness, and cardiac arrhythmia will develop with hypokalemia. Some dogs will also drink and urinate more when they have hypokalemia.
If your dog’s serum calcium concentration is >12.0 mg/dL, they have hypercalcemia, or too much calcium in the blood. Several diseases cause hypercalcemia by causing the body to reabsorb bone calcium or increasing digestive absorption of calcium. In dogs, the most common cause is renal failure. However, their causes might include hypoadrenocorticism, severe environmental hypothermia, Addison’s disease, vitamin D toxicosis, and aluminum exposure. Several malignant diseases are also causes of hypercalcemia. Lymphoma and carcinomas of the lungs, pancreas, skin, mammary glands, and nasal cavity can also cause it, along with leukemia. The signs of hypercalcemia include drinking and urinating more than normal, anorexia, depression, weakness, and vomiting. Seizures and muscle twitching can also occur.
A total serum calcium concentration of <8mg/dL is hypocalcemia. Chronic renal failure, acute pancreatitis, hypoparathyroidism, hypovitaminosis D, and severe starvation can cause this. Also, problems with the parathyroid can cause this imbalance. One unfortunate example of this is feeding a dog calcium supplements whilst she is pregnant. While seemingly helpful, doing this actually suppresses parathyroid hormone production, leading to low levels of calcium in the blood and causing eclampsia. Most of the signs of this imbalance are neuromuscular, meaning that your dog might have muscle tremors, twitches, tetany, and seizures. These signs most often appear when your dog’s serum calcium concentration is less than 6 mg/dL.
There are few instances where you would need to give your dog an electrolyte solution at home. Unlike people, dogs don’t lose many salts when they sweat. Instead, the vapor they lose when they pant is mostly made up of water. So, as a general rule of thumb, your dog just needs plain, fresh, cool water after exercise to stay hydrated, and they have little need for any extra electrolytes. So, before reaching for a sports drink for your dog, be aware that doing so may cause more harm than good. Giving electrolyte drinks to dogs on occasion won’t be harmful, but regular use will lead to a build-up of electrolytes. This is just as harmful, if not sometimes more harmful, than not having enough electrolytes!
If you suspect that your dog has an electrolyte imbalance and shows symptoms of one, it’s always best to talk to your vet. It’s likely that an underlying medical condition is to blame. Spending time making electrolyte solutions at home can delay getting a proper diagnosis for your dog. However, there are some isolated cases where an at-home solution may be all your pup needs – these are in cases of self-resolving mild vomiting and diarrhea, and for high-drive working dogs.
Flavored Electrolyte Solution
Many high-drive working dogs don’t drink enough. This is because their excitement and focus lead them to “forget.” For dogs in adverse weather conditions, this can pose a significant health risk of heatstroke and dehydration. As such, a pilot study was done on three groups of detection dogs.
Each group got a different treatment – one got plain water (W), one got subcutaneous electrolytes (SQ), and one got chicken-flavor oral electrolytes (OES). Dogs in the W and SQ group drank a mean of 5.0 ml/kg/hr. However, the OES group drank a much greater 18.6 ml/kg/hr – dogs in this group also developed isosthenuria and gained weight, though. Regardless of the group, all of the dogs had a small decrease in potassium, and none showed any electrolyte changes during the day. However, by the end of the day, only dogs in the OES group had better search times and a decreased hematocrit. The study makes no mention of what electrolytes were in the solution and if it was made especially for dogs, however. If your dog is a working dog who struggles to drink enough, talk to your vet about your options.
One common recommendation for dogs is Pedialyte. While it might be safe for dogs in small quantities, there are no scientific studies to “prove” this yet. Pedialyte is made for humans, not dogs, which is a given – but this is important when considering its ingredients. Pedialyte is very high in sodium with each drink containing more than 1030mg. In contrast, most dog foods contain 0.3% or more sodium. While a high sodium intake might cause more thirst, the extra sodium is usually excreted through urine – as long as there isn’t an underlying kidney or liver disease. With an underlying kidney or liver disease, your dog’s body cannot cycle out this sodium properly. Pedialyte is also made with extra sugar, which can be harmful to dogs with diabetes or underlying diseases that might cause electrolyte imbalances in the first place.
Dogs with severe dehydration, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, or any other illness that makes them sensitive to sodium and sugar should avoid Pedialyte. Without knowing why your pup is feeling unwell, it’s difficult to know if Pedialyte will help them or make them worse! If you opt to use Pedialyte for your dog for mild cases of vomiting or diarrhea, do so with caution. Only use unflavored Pedialyte with no added sugar to reduce the risks to their health.
Electrolytes for Dogs: FAQ
Have any more questions about electrolytes for dogs? Feel free to refer to our Frequently Asked Questions for more details on dog electrolytes. If in doubt about your dog’s health, always ask your vet for advice.
In cases of mild, self-resolving diarrhea, some vets might suggest giving a small amount of plain Pedialyte with fresh, clean water. However, you should not give this to dogs with underlying kidney, liver, or heart problems without asking your vet, first. This is because Pedialyte contains a lot of sodium. For dogs with severe electrolyte imbalances or underlying conditions, giving more may do more harm than good. Be sure to ask your vet for a blood test for your dog if you have concerns about their electrolyte levels.
The amount of time it takes to rehydrate a dog depends on how dehydrated they are. First, your vet needs to find out how much fluid your dog has lost so that they can give the correct amount back. If your dog is severely dehydrated, an overnight stay at the vet is very likely as the minimum. If your dog is mildly dehydrated, your vet may give your dog subcutaneous fluid injections. These injections offer fluid that dispels into the body over a period of a few hours. In the mildest cases, offering cool, clean water for your dog to drink should get them back on their paws in no time. So, in short, the time it takes depends on how badly, and why, your dog is dehydrated.
A blood chemistry test can tell a lot about your dog’s electrolyte levels! Blood chemistry tests are done to measure specific chemicals in the blood. Your vet may order an electrolyte test to look for bicarbonate, chloride, potassium, and sodium in your dog’s blood. A blood chemistry test is the only way to accurately see the levels of electrolytes in your dog’s blood.
All dogs need electrolytes in their blood. However, they do not need to be given them in the same way that people do. While people lose salts and minerals in their sweat quite easily, dogs lose very few salts in this way. Instead, the main risk to an overheating dog is dehydration, which can then lead to electrolyte imbalances when not corrected. If your dog has a medical condition like hypothyroidism or adrenal insufficiency, however, their risk of developing an electrolyte imbalance is much greater. Your vet may need to give them extra electrolytes to manage their condition.
There are several key signs of dehydration in dogs. These are thirst, reduced skin elasticity, a dry nose with dry or tacky gums, a lack of appetite, sunken eyes, and panting more than usual. Dogs with dehydration may also have dark, smelly urine. As dehydration worsens, dogs may become lethargic and seem confused or distressed. In the worst cases, severe dehydration will lead to a rapid heart rate, weak pulse, weakness, shivering, loss of consciousness, and death.
Dog electrolytes are essential for the body. However, dogs don’t lose them the same way that people do. This means that you don’t need to give your dog sports drinks after they’ve been exercising! So, if your dog shows signs of an electrolyte imbalance, an underlying medical condition might be to blame. Always check in with your vet at the first sign that something is wrong with your pup.