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Electrolytes for Dogs: Safety Considerations

When dehydrated, it's important to replace fluids and electrolytes. You might wonder if your dog could benefit from electrolytes when it’s experiencing dehydration, too. Read on to learn why you should be familiar with electrolyte use in dogs and what risks to be aware of.

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What are electrolytes for dogs?

An electrolyte solution is a liquid you give your dog to improve hydration and replenish electrolytes. These solutions contain essential minerals that help the body to function, such as sodium, potassium, and chloride. Similar solutions are given to humans with mild diarrhea or dehydration to help them feel better. Humans use common drinks, including Gatorade, Pedialyte, Liquid I.V. (added to water), and more.

Importantly, electrolyte solutions made for humans are not formulated based on the electrolyte balance of dogs. Unless your veterinarian recommends a specific human electrolyte solution, you would be better off using something formulated for dogs, such as VetClassics Pet-A-Lyte Oral Electrolyte Solution or Petralyte.

If you are truly concerned that your pet needs electrolytes, the best step is to contact your veterinarian. Your veterinarian has access to fluids that can safely improve your pet’s hydration without some of the risks that come with oral electrolyte solutions.

When might a dog benefit from electrolytes?

Oral electrolyte solutions may be considered for dogs with mild to moderate dehydration due to hot environments or brief illness. Dehydration can lead to electrolyte imbalances, which can lead to muscle weakness, irregular heart rhythms, and seizures if unresolved. However, additional studies are needed to determine if there is a benefit to using oral electrolyte solutions instead of regular water for correcting mild to moderate dehydration.

There are few published studies regarding the use of specific electrolytes for canine dehydration. A 2001 study did not find a significant benefit to oral electrolyte solutions compared to regular water for search and rescue dogs working in warm environments. However, a 2020 study indicated that electrolyte solutions may increase overall fluid intake in tracking dogs when given as a pre-treatment before exercise. A 2013 study found that dogs with mild to moderate dehydration due to hemorrhagic diarrhea had improved hydration after drinking an electrolyte solution and that this treatment option cost significantly less than treatment with intravenous fluids. More studies are needed to determine which solutions are truly beneficial, as well as what scenarios warrant the administration of oral electrolytes.

Some animal shelters and veterinary clinics use Pedialyte for puppies with parvovirus and have anecdotally seen improved hydration. However, it’s hard to know if the improvements were due to Pedialyte, other treatments, or the dog’s immune system. The use of Pedialyte is not currently included in parvovirus treatment recommendations.

Before giving electrolytes to your pet, you should always consult with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can advise you on whether your pet would benefit from electrolytes, if they need more intensive therapy (such as intravenous fluids), or if there is a risk for harm if you give your pet an electrolyte solution. Without testing performed at the veterinarian to monitor electrolyte levels, you cannot know for sure that your pet has an electrolyte imbalance.

Signs of dehydration in dogs

Your pet may benefit from fluid supplementation with or without electrolytes if they have the following signs of dehydration:

  • Loss of skin elasticity (prolonged skin tent)
  • Dry or tacky gums
  • Thick, stringy saliva
  • Dark yellow urine
  • Dry nose
  • Sunken eyes
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Heavy panting

If you’re noticing these signs, provide your dog with water and make sure they’re in a cool, shaded environment. Contact your veterinarian before giving any electrolyte solutions, especially if you're not sure why your pet is dehydrated. For example, a pet who has been indoors with free access to water should not be dehydrated. A veterinary examination should be performed to rule out medical conditions.

How to safely administer electrolytes to dogs

If your veterinarian recommends administering Pedialyte or other pet-specific electrolyte solutions to your dog, the following tips can help you keep your pet safe:

  • If using a human electrolyte solution, Pedialyte is preferred over sports drinks like Gatorade because sports drinks contain significantly more sugar and fewer electrolytes than Pedialyte. Sucrose, which is included in some sports drinks, may worsen diarrhea.
  • Use a syringe to measure the electrolyte solution you add to your pet’s water or food.
  • If you will be diluting Pedialyte in water, you can offer one part of Pedialyte to one part of water.
  • You can try pouring the Pedialyte dose over food (likely a vet-recommended bland diet).
  • Do not syringe-feed oral electrolyte solutions unless your vet instructs you to do so. If your pet is not freely drinking and requires syringe-feeding, they need veterinary attention.
  • Be aware that not all ingredients are safe for dogs. If the product comes in various flavors, look for a basic water-electrolyte additive. Ensure there is no xylitol, as this is very toxic to dogs.
  • Proceed with extra caution if your dog has diabetes, chronic kidney disease, or heart disease (especially congestive heart failure). You should also use caution if your pet takes certain medications, such as diuretics like furosemide or spironolactone. Make sure you’ve discussed these specific concerns with your veterinarian.
  • If your pet does not improve or symptoms worsen, seek veterinary attention.

It's also an option to have your veterinarian administer well-balanced fluids under the skin or into the vein rather than administering electrolytes at home. Fluids administered under the skin by your veterinarian are absorbed slowly over several hours. If your veterinarian is giving intravenous fluids, they can calculate the precise rate of fluids to administer to correct your dog's dehydration and account for additional losses due to vomiting and/or diarrhea.

Electrolyte dosage guidelines for dogs of different sizes

Because of the lack of published evidence regarding specific electrolyte solutions for dogs, you’ll notice a variety of recommendations regarding the dosage of human electrolyte solutions. For example, when it comes to Pedialyte for dogs, you may see 2–4 mL per pound of body weight per day, a tablespoon per 10 pounds of body weight every hour or two, or one teaspoon per pound of body weight every 2–3 hours. If you are using Pedialyte, ask your veterinarian for their dosing recommendation.

Oral electrolyte solutions that are made for pets should come with dosing guidelines. Even with guidelines on the bottle or packaging, it's a good idea to run the solution and dosing past your veterinarian before proceeding.

There are also online recipes for homemade electrolytes for pets. Do not give homemade electrolyte solutions to your pet unless your veterinarian recommends and formulates the recipe for you. Most conventional veterinarians will not recommend homemade electrolytes for pets.

Side effects of electrolytes in dogs

Pedialyte and other oral electrolyte solutions come with several risks, including:

  • Electrolyte imbalance. As mentioned, you cannot know that your dog has an electrolyte imbalance without laboratory testing. It’s possible that you will be giving electrolytes to a dog who doesn’t need them. You could actually cause the problem you’re trying to solve.
  • Gastroenteritis (stomach and intestinal inflammation). Oral electrolytes can cause vomiting and diarrhea in some dogs, which can worsen dehydration.
  • Worsening of underlying health conditions. Patients with diabetes, kidney disease, or heart disease can experience complications from their conditions, such as lack of glycemic control or worsening fluid accumulation if given oral electrolytes.
  • Xylitol toxicity. Solutions that contain xylitol are toxic to dogs. Xylitol causes low blood sugar, liver failure, and potentially death in dogs.

If you think your dog is dehydrated enough that simply providing water won’t remedy its condition, you should consult a veterinarian before administering Pedialyte or other electrolyte solutions. This is especially important if your dog has diabetes, chronic kidney disease, a heart condition, or is seriously ill. The lack of published research on the safety and efficacy of Pedialyte and other electrolyte solutions for dogs might be reason enough to pause this potential treatment and rely on evidence-based veterinary care to make your pet feel like itself again.

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