|Baking soda is only a valid treatment for bloat caused by acidosis (also known as grain bloat). Always consult with your veterinarian when dealing with bloat.|
Baking soda isn’t a magical cure-all for goats.
Anyone with a hobby goat will invariably be told to feed it baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) at some point. It’s promoted as a cure for everything from bloat to urinary stones. Most of the time, this advice is misplaced. Let’s discuss what the function of baking soda is and what it does and doesn’t do.
Sodium bicarbonate (NaHCO3) is a biochemical that buffers the rumen. What this simply means is that it keeps the rumen pH stable. This is important because the microbes that digest hay thrive in a pH of 6.0-6.8 while grain-digesting microbes thrive at a pH of 5.5-6.0 so we need to keep rumen pH within a narrow window for rumen health. Also, pH directly affects the ability to absorb certain nutrients.
So, yes, sodium bicarbonate is very beneficial. But what most people don’t realize is that the ruminant animal produces its own sodium bicarbonate in the saliva without being fed baking soda. During the act of cud chewing, copious amounts of bicarbonate are transferred into the rumen. Goats fed long-stem forages (grazing pastures or receiving hay) will produce more saliva (and thus bicarbonate) than goats fed grains or finely ground hay that don’t require cud chewing.
Since goats rarely have an issue with rumen pH being too high, we will focus on the issues occuring when it drops too low. This condition is called acidosis. When rumen pH drops, a vicious cycle begins. As the pH drops, the grain-digesting microbes thrive while the fiber-digesting microbes do poorly. One of the by-products of grain digestion is lactic acid. So the more grain these microbes digest, the more acid is produced and the lower pH goes. Eventually, the pH drops so low the microbes die and the rumen stops contracting. Rumen contractions normally move gas produced as a by-product of microbial fermentation toward the esophagus so it can be belched out. When contractions stop, gases get stuck and can fill up the rumen quickly causing grain bloat. To treat grain bloat, one has to treat the acidosis. Under this condition, releasing the gas through tubing or a trocar in addition to giving a drench of sodium bicarbonate is the correct course of action. Be sure you are actually dealing with bloat and not just a full rumen before initiating bloat treatment. I’d recommend enlisting the help of a veterinarian if you are inexperienced in doing this yourself.
Conditions where supplementation with baking soda may be appropriate (i.e. conditions ideal for acidosis development):
- Feeding of high levels of grain (should only be doing this for dairy does in heavy lactation or for goats being fattened for slaughter).
- Shifting from long-stem forages to a chopped forage (such as silage or Chaffhaye).
- Feeding of finely ground feed (such as hog feed). Pelleted or texturized feeds are best for goats.
- Drenching in cases of known acidosis.
In severe scours where the animal is off-feed, it will provide some electrolytes and help prevent a secondary case of acidosis.
Situations where feeding of baking soda provides no benefit:
- Goats on all-forage diets or those receiving very little supplemental grain.
- Goats experiencing frothy bloat caused by the grazing of lush legumes like clover or alfalfa or small grains like wheat or rye. Baking soda will provide no relief at all for this type of bloat.
- Urinary stone prevention – first, baking soda doesn’t affect urinary pH. Second, the urine needs to actually become more acidic in order to decrease the formation of stones and baking soda neutralizes acidity.
Ok, so giving free-choice baking soda isn’t always necessary. But can it cause any harm? The answer is … yes. Sodium bicarbonate is a source of sodium. Normally, animals receive their sodium via salt (NaCl) which provides equal amounts of both sodium and chloride. The correct ratio of sodium to chloride in the diet is 1:1. When your goat eats baking soda, it is more likely it is doing so to get sodium than it is for some need for extra buffering. Given that sodium is the critical limiting element in salt consumption, when animals consume a lot of baking soda, they are getting their sodium needs met so they won’t need to eat as much salt that can throw off chloride levels. Also, when the salt source is a free-choice, balanced mineral supplement, you are also limiting the intake of these other critical minerals like copper and selenium.
The best way for the hobby farmer to keep goats healthy is to feed a forage-based diet. Give them access to all the good-quality hay or pasture they want. Grass or grass-mixed forages are more than adequate for pets or those in light production. Alfalfa is not necessary. Also, give goats continuous access to a high-quality mineral supplement containing balanced levels of macro- and micro-minerals as well as vitamins. No free-choice baking soda is needed in this scenario.
For those who choose to give free access to baking soda no matter what, it is very important you monitor the intake of salt-containing mineral supplements to make sure they are receiving adequate amounts. Consult the mineral label to find desired intakes. With SWEETLIX Meat Maker minerals, an adult goat (not a mini breed) should consume roughly 1 pound of mineral per month. Thus one 25-pound bag should last about three months for eight adult goats.
In summary, baking soda provides buffering action in the rumen and is a desired treatment for goats at high risk for acidosis. Baking soda can interfere with salt intake. The average pet goat owner can avoid problems by feeding a grass forage-based diet with free-choice access to clean water and a high-quality mineral supplement such as SWEETLIX 16:8 Meat Maker.