What is Electrolyte Disturbance?
Electrolytes are ionized salts that circulate through the body and play a crucial role in nutrient absorption and cell osmosis. Phosphate (HPO4-) is one of these important electrolytes. About 85% of the phosphorus in the body is contained in the bones, but a small amount circulates in the blood stream as phosphate ions. These electrolytes help to control nerve and muscle function, transport oxygen, and regulate the conversion of food into energy. Low phosphate levels are rare in dogs since the parathyroid glands and the kidneys work to maintain normal blood levels by reducing phosphate excretion and even reabsorbing phosphorus from the bones if necessary. Intestinal inflammation can reduce absorption however, and, over an extended period of time, low phosphorus diets may weaken an animal’s bones. More commonly, electrolyte imbalance is caused by diseases that affect the kidneys and parathyroid glands, causing abnormally high phosphate excretion. Phosphate levels in the blood can also drop suddenly if too much is redistributed into the cells through osmosis. This can happen after an insulin or glucose injection, or in refeeding syndrome when starving animals eat large amounts of food too quickly. Severely low levels of phosphate in the blood can disrupt breathing and heart rate, destroy red blood cells, and cause muscle weakness and neurological symptoms. This is most common in diabetic dogs, but it can occur in some other situations as well. Immediate treatment with fluids and phosphate ions can rebalance the electrolytes, but hypophosphatemia is still a significant, diabetes-related cause of death.
Phosphate is an important electrolyte that helps to regulate muscle function and metabolism. Many different electrolytes work together, so low phosphate levels, called hypophosphatemia, can cause serious electrolyte disturbance. In dogs, this occurs with poorly regulated diabetes, as well as some other conditions.
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Symptoms of Electrolyte Disturbance in Dogs
These are some of the symptoms that you might see in your dog. Life-threatening symptoms should be treated as an emergency.
- Difficulty breathing
- Uneven heart rate
- Muscle weakness
- Muscle pain
- Weak bones, lameness, or fractures (chronic phosphate deficiency)
Normal phosphate levels in the blood are between 2.5-7.7 mg/dl. Types of hypophosphatemia are defined based on severity.
- Mild 2-2.4 mg/dl
- Moderate 1.5-2 mg/dl
- Severe < 1.5 mg/dl
Causes of Electrolyte Disturbance in Dogs
Many different conditions can affect absorption, excretion, and cellular intake of phosphate.
Decreased intestinal absorption
- Phosphate binding drugs
- Vitamin D deficiency
- Intestinal inflammation (IBD)
- Dietary deficiency
Phosphate excretion in the urine
- Diabetes with or without ketoacidosis
- Parathyroid gland disorders (Primary and secondary hyperparathyroidism)
- Cancerous tumors that release parathyroid hormones
- Adrenal gland disorders - Hyperadrenocorticism (Addison’s Disease) and Hyperaldosteronism
- Cushing’s disease
- Corticosteroid use
- Kidney defects (Fanconi’s syndrome is most common in Basenjis)
- Hypercalcemia (due malignant tumors or renal failure)
- Diuretic use
Excessive cellular intake
- Insulin injections
- Glucose injections
- Respiratory alkalosis
- Refeeding syndrome
- Xylitol poisoning (sugar substitute)
Diagnosis of Electrolyte Disturbance in Dogs
Electrolyte levels will be determined with a blood test. This will show the degree of hypophosphatemia, as well as abnormal levels of other electrolytes, especially calcium. The veterinarian will try to identify the underlying cause of the imbalance by testing for other conditions like diabetes and high parathyroid hormone levels. Concurrent symptoms, like vomiting or diarrhea, may help to determine the source of the problem. Other tests could focus on potential infections, autoimmune responses, kidney dysfunction or Cushing’s disease. X-rays or ultrasound could be necessary if a cancerous tumor is causing hormone imbalance, or to identify weak bones or fracture.
The veterinarian will need to know your dog’s medical history including any prior or current medications, especially insulin, diuretics, or corticosteroids. Dietary deficiency is most common with homemade diets, so the vet may ask what type of food your pet normally eats. Any history of starvation or potential poisoning will also be relevant.
Treatment of Electrolyte Disturbance in Dogs
Severe hypophosphatemia is treated with intravenous fluids and phosphate ions. If your dog is very ill, this treatment can save his life, so it’s important to get to the veterinarian as soon as possible. Once the condition is stabilized, treatment will focus on the underlying cause. Short-term conditions like refeeding or poisoning will resolve themselves once the life-threatening symptoms are treated. The veterinarian may prescribe medication to regulate diabetes or adjust existing doses to avoid recurrence.
Mild or moderate hypophosphatemia will be treated with supplements or diet change. Dairy products are high in phosphate, so the veterinarian may recommend adding these to your dog’s diet, or switching to a different brand of dog food that provides more complete nutrition.
Other treatments could be necessary depending on the cause of hypophosphatemia. Diuretics or other drugs that reduce phosphate absorption may need to be eliminated. Your dog may need hormone therapy treatment, or medication to help reduce kidney dysfunction. Cancer might need to be treated with surgery and/or chemotherapy. The necessity for any of these treatments will be evaluated by your veterinarian upon diagnosis.
Recovery of Electrolyte Disturbance in Dogs
Hypophosphatemia can be resolved with immediate treatment, but full recovery will depend on the underlying cause. If your dog has diabetes, this will require lifelong management with diet and medication. Many other conditions might need long term medication, so you will need to discuss any potential side effects. Complete recovery is possible in some cases, but it will depend on the diagnosis of a veterinarian.
Electrolyte Disturbance Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
Can low/dropping levels of phosphorous be fatal in dogs. Took my furbaby to vets for a biopsy and took a blood sample .low level.did a further test and dropped again
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My Golden has a very sensitive stomach and has had to go off various foods because her system won’t tolerate it anymore. She went on a topical spray and began having really bad diarrhea for a few days. During which she didn’t want to eat or drink very much. I discontinued the spray and gave her a half pill of Imodium in the morning and night for two days. The third day she seemed to be feeling better and eating and drinking but that night she suffered 2 grand mal seizures. One at 930pm and one at 350am. Lasting about 45-60 sec ea. I took her to the vet this morning and suggested electrolyte disturbance as a possible cause. They have done blood work that we won’t get back till tomorrow. They don’t seem to think that an electrolyte problem would be the cause. They keep saying it will probably be a brain tumor. She is 10 yrs old. Never had any health problems except gastro issues. Never had a seizure. And she just had blood work done last week for her annual check up and everything came back fine. So my question is a second oppinion. Do you think she could of had a seizure from the dehydration from the diarrhea that had maybe caused electrolyte disturbances?
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My alaskan Malamute had diarrhea for a couple of days and no appetite, she's has excessive drooling and excessive urination. She drinks a ton of water. I finally got her to eat some dog food and she hasnt has a bowel movement in days. She's been heavily panting and we keep our house very cool. She's also been very lethargic.
There are various causes for a loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhoea which include infections, parasites, poisoning, foreign bodies among other causes; if there is excessive salivation this may point to something irritating the mouth. Without examining DesiLu, I cannot really give much more advice; try to force feed by feeding wet food and water syringed into the mouth to encourage eating, but it would be best to visit your Veterinarian for an examination. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM
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What should I do if my dog bit into an asthma inhaler?
Please take Sport to your Veterinarian’s Office as asthma inhalers contain multiple, but usually hundreds of doses of steroids or other drugs that can serious affect Sports health and life. Take the ruptured canister along with any packaging you have with you to your Veterinarian so that sport can receive the right supportive care and medical management of symptoms (reducing heart rate, correction of potassium levels etc…). Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM
My Min Pin has low phosphate levels and drinks water. She is in crate during the day when at work. Once I come home she starving for water. This has never been this way. Took her to vet low phosphate levels and sugar was 136. Vet said recheck in 6 months. I went threw my vet stuff and in 2016 she had low phosphate levels. Should I try giving her something to help her levels?
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