The Role of Electrolytes in Animal Physiologyfinity
Electrolytes for animals are a crucial component of any veterinarian’s arsenal. Now that New Zealand is heading into summer, our pets and animals—from the racehorse to the humble domestic canine—will experience the stress that comes with over-sweating and dehydration.
So, there’s no better time to brush up on your electrolyte knowledge: what are they, what do they do, and what happens if animals don’t have enough?
What are electrolytes?
In essence, electrolytes are salts and minerals we take into our bodies. We take them in by eating food, and the more mineral-rich the food is, the more electrolytes it provides to the body. A list of common electrolytes in animal bodies include:
These combine to make minerals, and when dissolved, become electrolytes once again.
Electrolytes have the prefix electro- (a Latinised form of the Greek ēlektro-) to denote their chemical nature. When dissolved, electrolytes disassemble into positive and negative charges, allowing electricity to move through them as fluid-borne conductors. In other words, when electrolytes are dissolved in water, that water can hold more electricity. The charge of the electrolyte will depend on its chemical composition (for example, potassium is positive).
Why do animals need a healthy amount of electrolytes?
Why are electrolytes so important in the animal body? To answer that, we need to consider how a body functions. Nerve impulses fire to trigger crucial physiological processes, and water travels through the body to accomplish various functions. Electrolytes control and facilitate these processes, which is why they’re so important.
Electrolytes regulate cell hydration
Thanks to osmosis, water will always travel to the side of a cell’s semipermeable membrane that has the greatest electrolyte concentration. If there are more electrolytes inside a cell wall, more water will enter, and vice versa. Electrolytes regulate a cell’s hydration, preventing cells from dying of dehydration or exploding with too much water (a phenomenon called cytolysis).
All animal bodies are constructed from these cells, and cell death has myriad negative consequences. The amount of water diffusing from one side of the cell membrane to the other is incredibly important to a living creature’s overall health.
Electrolytes conduct nerve impulses
A proper nerve impulse is characterised by a positive ion firing through the ion channel, carrying an electrical impulse onto the next nerve. An ion by another name is an electrolyte, and without them, our nerves start to fire improperly!
There’s one way that animals lose electrolytes: by losing fluids. Whether it’s sweating too much, experiencing severe vomiting or diarrhoea, or is malnourished, electrolyte problems will make themselves known quickly.
What happens if an animal doesn’t get enough electrolytes?
Consequences of dehydration or an electrolyte deficiency vary from mild to severe, but the transition from one end of the spectrum to the other is quick.
If an animal loses too many electrolytes, any of the following symptoms can arise:
- Irregular or fast heartbeat
- Fatigue and lethargy
- Convulsions or seizures
- Diarrhoea or constipation
- Cramping in the abdomen or muscles
- Muscular weakness or numbness
- Confusion, headaches, irritability
If not remedied, a lack of electrolytes can lead to eventual death. It’s crucial to treat dehydration and deficiencies quickly with intravenous fluids, oral veterinary minerals, or supplements. Having the right products in stock can make the difference for a veterinary patient, so make sure to keep your stores stocked with electrolytes heading into the summer.
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