The Danger of Dehydration In Newborn Livestock

Newborn livestock ruminants are highly susceptible to dehydration, so learn how to monitor for this issue on your farm and what to do about it.

by Anna O'Brien
PHOTO: Kara/Adobe Stock

It’s springtime again and calves, lambs and kids are likely on many hobby farmers’ minds. If you’ve got young stock arriving, hopefully you’re having a busy and enjoyable time. But as the Spiderman-turned-farmer quote goes: With great cuteness comes great responsibility.

Newborn animals (the term “neonate” is used for just-born livestock up to roughly a week of age) are fragile, sensitive little things. It’s on us to watch them closely during the first week of life to make sure they get the strongest start possible.

One health aspect that is incredibly important for young animals is their hydration status. Newborn mammals, humans included, are made up of a lot of water. If they don’t maintain that high level of hydration, things go downhill at an alarming rate.

Not surprisingly, severe dehydration can kill newborn livestock. So let’s take a closer look at this aspect of neonate health.


How would a young animal become dehydrated in the first place? Most commonly, it’s because they have diarrhea. Periods of lengthy loose stools can deplete a neonate of vital fluid and electrolytes. There are numerous causes of neonatal diarrhea. Most are either bacterial or viral in origin and are so common in ruminant species they are often all clumped together as “neonatal calf diarrhea,” commonly called “scours.”

If diarrhea isn’t caught and treated early enough, it quickly spirals into a disaster. First, the calf is weak and doesn’t feel good, so it doesn’t nurse. This then prevents the neonate from restoring any lost fluids and she gets weaker, then feels worse, then really is not nursing at all, meanwhile still having diarrhea and losing fluids.

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See how this is a nasty vicious cycle? Severely dehydrated neonates are not able to stand on their own and become cold. If they are not treated aggressively at this point, they will die.

Read more: Check out these best practices for livestock birthing season!

Prevention & Treatment

One more word of caution: Some causes of scours are zoonotic, meaning the infectious agent can be transferred from animal to human (and vice versa). Always practice strict hygiene when handling a young animal with diarrhea. Remember to wash your hands immediately after handling it.

Additionally, don’t share equipment between sick animals (or disinfect between use).

Whether an animal has diarrhea or not is obvious. But how do you measure dehydration in newborn livestock? It turns out there is a lot of solid science behind a simple pinch. “Skin tenting” is what is measured when you pinch skin and see how long it takes to snap back against the body.

Testing by Tenting

Try it on yourself—pinch the loose skin on the top of your hand. Hopefully, it pops back in place within a second or so. If it stays tented, go drink some water.

Now let’s apply this practice to young ruminants. A good place to pinch the skin of a calf is directly below its eye. Unlike skin around the shoulders, the skin on the face is relatively tight and should snap back readily if the calf is healthy. Once you pinch and let go, start counting seconds.

If the skin takes longer than a second to pop back in place, you’ve got a clinically dehydrated animal on your hands. If skin takes longer than five seconds to pop back in place, this animal is severely compromised.

It’s in the Eyes

In conjunction with skin tenting, look at your calf’s eyes. The more dehydrated an animal gets, the more sunken its eyes are in the sockets. With a ruler, measure the space between the lower eyelid and the actual eyeball in millimeters. In a normally hydrated animal, there shouldn’t be any space there.

However, as the animal becomes dehydrated, the eyeball will start to sink back into the skull, creating a measurable space. Check out this table from Oklahoma State University on how to use skin tenting and eyeball scores to calculate how dehydrated your calf is. Consider printing it out and putting it in the barn for easy reference.

If a your newborn livestock has dehydration of less than about 8 percent (equating to a one- to three-second skin tent time and no more than 4 mm eyeball recession), you should supplement him with oral fluids to replace the amount he has lost. If skin tenting takes longer than three seconds and the eyeball is more than 4 mm recessed, this calf requires more serious fluid therapy in the form of IV fluids.

At this point, you should call your veterinarian for help.

Keeping a close eye on your young livestock and investigating further when you suspect something’s not quite right are the best ways to help the animals on your farm get off to the strongest start this year.

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