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Resident Drinking Water Considerations At Your Animal Sanctuary

water drips from a faucet
There’s more to it than just turning on the tap! Photo by Luis Tosta on Unsplash

Ensuring your residents receive the nutrients they require for their health and wellbeing is an essential aspect of animal care, but the importance of water is sometimes overlooked. Sure, we know our residents need access to water, but simply putting out a container of water is not enough. Water must be safe, clean, palatable, and easily accessible. How this manifests will depend on the species you care for as well as the specific individuals in your care, but the general concepts are the same. Water testing, daily cleaning of water containers*, frequent replenishment of water, and choosing the right location and setup for water stations all play an important role in making sure residents have access to safe, palatable water and also that they are encouraged (or at least are not discouraged) to drink freely.

Containers*
There are numerous dishes, containers, devices, etc. that can be used to provide your residents’ drinking water. To keep things simple, we’re going to refer to these generally as “water containers”.

Water Testing

If your residents’ drinking water comes from a private well or is spring-fed, the first step to ensuring the water is safe is to have it tested. Your local cooperative extension office or veterinarian should be able to offer guidance regarding which laboratory to use (we recommend using an accredited lab), and they (or the laboratory) can provide instructions on proper water sampling. While water testing plays an important role if you or your veterinarian suspect an issue, routine water testing (ideally, conducted annually) can help identify potential issues early, possibly before your residents are adversely affected. Because water quality changes over time, regular testing is important. 

In addition to annual water testing, you should also have water tested if:

  • You notice changes in water such as a change in color, odor, clarity, or taste
  • Residents are displaying signs of concern that could potentially be related to a water issue
  • There has been flooding near the water supply

Additionally, if your residents are displaying changes in their eating and drinking habits, water testing may be advised, but of course there are many potential causes to consider. However, especially if you notice changes with an entire herd or flock or with multiple resident groups, an issue with the water could be the cause. It’s important to note that a water source (such as a well) can be the point where contamination occurs, but contamination could also occur within the pipes/ delivery system or within the water container used to hold resident drinking water. We recommend working with your veterinarian, cooperative extension agent, or other expert for guidance regarding sample collection and to determine what tests should be performed.

What About Municipal Drinking Water?
Water testing doesn’t have to be reserved for just well or spring-fed water. If you have concerns about municipal drinking water quality or concerns about your pipes leaching lead or other contaminants, you should get your water tested. You may even be able to get a free water testing kit from your municipality.

Different labs may include different tests in their water panel test, and in some cases you may need to request additional tests. Possibilities include:

  • Assessing physiochemical properties such as pH, total dissolved solids, and hardness
  • Checking for excess minerals or other compounds (for example, nitrates)
  • Screening for toxic compounds
  • Identifying biological contaminants such as bacteria, viruses, or algae

Be sure to work with your veterinarian or other expert to interpret water test results. The effect of specific water contaminants will depend on various factors including the species and the life stage of the individual. If you care for both avian and mammalian species, you may need to work with multiple experts to have results interpreted. Unfortunately, it seems information regarding water quality for avian species of farmed animals is lacking compared to mammalian species such as cows or horses. Additionally, much of the available information regarding “acceptable” water quality for farmed animals is focused on the impact water quality has on exploitative practices such as egg and milk production or the effect water quality has on growth of animals destined for slaughter, rather than focusing solely on the long term health of the individual.

Even without these complicating factors regarding water quality parameters, interpreting water test results can be challenging and complex, which is why it is important to work with your veterinarian or other expert to have results interpreted. According to Dr. Andrew A. Olkowski, “The effects of individual water contaminants cannot be deliberated as a ‘stand alone’ problem, but rather must be considered in the context of complex interactions with other dietary and/ or environmental variables.” He stresses the importance of considering cumulative, additive, and synergistic effects and their potential to cause adverse effects. For example, if a mineral is found in the water, but is deemed to be at a safe concentration, it’s important to consider if your residents get this mineral from other sources, as well, because this could result in the overall mineral level exceeding the safe threshold and causing toxicity or metabolic issues.

Consider All Water Sources
Because surface water is more easily contaminated by harmful microorganisms, we do not recommend relying on these water sources for your residents’ drinking water. However, ponds and lakes may play an important role in your residents’ living spaces, offering opportunities to cool down or allowing species who like to swim the opportunity to do so. In addition to testing well water and water systems, it’s important to consider other water sources your residents have access to so you can identify potential risks. In some cases, you may need to test other water sources and/ or restrict your residents’ access to these sources if they are deemed unsafe- we’ll talk a bit more about this below.

In addition to assessing the safety of your residents’ water, testing can also identify water composition that may result in palatability issues. Salinity, pH, odor, and the presence of certain minerals or contaminants can result in poor palatability. If water is not palatable, residents may not drink enough, leading to dehydration and other issues. While this can be a concern regardless of the species you care for, this is of increased concern in equines as they appear to be more sensitive to the taste (and smell) of water, and will significantly reduce their water consumption if water palatability is poor, increasing their risk of colic and other health issues. It’s important to note that while some water that is unsafe to drink may also be unpalatable, this is not always the case- water can be palatable and unsafe, meaning residents may continue to drink normally despite the presence of harmful compounds.

Daily Cleaning

Prepare For Water Shortages!
If, for some reason, your water source is unreliable, be sure to have a backup plan to secure water for your residents! You never want a situation where residents are out of water and you are unable to provide it! Keeping a backup water supply may be advised.

Also, be sure to plan ahead for times when water is out. If you know in advance that water availability may be interrupted, be sure to take steps to ensure residents continue to have water and make sure all staff and volunteers are aware that water will be out (you don’t want someone dumping waters in preparation to clean them and then finding out there is no water!). If your water supply requires electricity, be prepared for power outages by having a generator installed or by keeping a portable generator on hand.

Once you know your residents’ water is safe and palatable, it’s important to keep it that way with regular cleaning practices. Depending on your setup and the type of water container used, water may become contaminated with plant matter, dirt, bits of food, and even urine or feces (either from your residents or from wildlife). Some setups may prevent, or seriously limit, this type of contamination, but even your residents’ saliva introduces organic matter to their water. Once organic matter has been introduced to the water, it can easily become a breeding ground for microorganisms including bacteria and algae. Some microorganisms are detrimental to your residents’ health, but even those that do not directly affect them can still be problematic if they affect the smell, taste, or appearance of the water, making it less appealing to residents and potentially leading to reduced water consumption. 

To prevent water from becoming less appealing or unpalatable, as well as to prevent the growth of harmful microorganisms, be sure to empty and thoroughly scrub water containers at least once per day and refill with fresh, clean water. Depending on the material the container is made out of and how dirty it has become, you may find it takes some serious scrubbing to get it clean (using a high-powered hose may also be necessary). A thoroughly cleaned water container should not have a slimy feel to it and should not have any visible patches of algae, dirt, etc. 

Think About Where You Are Dumping That Water!
Avoid creating muddy areas (unless that is your goal in a pig resident area) by being strategic about where waters are dumped during cleaning (and in the winter, make sure you don’t create icy areas where residents or humans walk). Grassy areas or areas outside of resident living spaces (and away from where humans typically walk) are good areas to dump water to avoid creating overly wet and muddy conditions. Large water tubs can be drained and water dumped in another location by bailing them out with a bucket, or you might consider installing a drain valve that can be hooked up to a hose so water can be directed away from the water tank.

If the area around a water container starts to get muddy, we recommend moving it to a dry location (for those that are not fixed in place) so residents aren’t forced to stand in mud while drinking. If the container is not able to be moved, you should take measures to dry out the area and may need to look into having some drainage work done to prevent future issues with mud or standing water.

Reducing Water Waste
It can be a delicate balance ensuring your residents have access to sufficient quantities of clean water without creating a bunch of water waste. We recommend paying attention to how much water your residents drink and finding an appropriately-sized receptacle to hold their drinking water. You want to make sure they won’t run out, but offering significantly more water than they will go through in between cleanings is going to result in unnecessary water usage. There’s always going to be some water to be emptied for cleanings, so we recommend thinking about how you can use this water without it feeling like it is going to waste. Perhaps you can use the water in another way within the residents’ living space- can you use it to water vegetated areas of their living spaces? If residents have open water sources for cooling off or bathing, can you use their leftover drinking water to refill these sources (don’t use water that is visibly dirty, and if using it to refill water used for cooling, make sure the water is not warm). If you use a float valve to keep large water troughs full, consider turning off the water supply and letting residents drink it down a bit so you aren’t emptying a full trough. You’ll need to pay attention to your residents’ drinking habits and water consumption to determine when to turn off the water supply to ensure your residents are not at risk of running out of water.

You may need to change certain water containers even more often during the day if you find they become dirty. Some residents (such as pigs and ducks) are notorious for getting their drinking water dirty quickly. Additionally, if residents defecate in water or contaminate water with food that breaks up in water and cannot be easily removed, these sources should be changed. Between water changes, be sure to remove any plant matter that gets into water sources- for large tanks, a skimmer is a useful tool for this task.

Biofilms

You’ve likely come across water containers (yours or your residents’) that have started to feel a bit slimy. That slime is biofilm, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines as “a group of microorganisms—often a mix of bacteria, fungi, and amebas—that live together and release a slimy, glue-like substance, which allows them to stick to surfaces.” While not all biofilms are harmful, they can change the taste and smell of water sources and can act as a reservoir for harmful pathogens, so be sure to scrub water containers and get rid of any slimy build-up that develops.

Algae And Cyanobacteria (“Blue-Green Algae”)

Did you know that despite being called “blue-green algae”, cyanobacteria is actually a bacteria and not a true algae? Despite this fact, it can still be helpful to discuss cyanobacteria and algae together since it can be difficult for an inexperienced person to tell them apart and because the two are often confused with each other. Both algae and cyanobacteria reproduce rapidly when conditions are ideal- this is referred to as a “bloom”. Different species bloom at different times of year or under different conditions, but light, oxygen, and nutrients are required. Large blooms are often preceded by hot, calm weather.

First let’s talk about algae. There are various types of algae, and while they do not produce substances that are toxic to your residents, they can cause water to taste, smell, and look unappealing. This can result in residents consuming less water, putting them at risk of dehydration and related health issues. Ponds or shallow lakes can become so depleted of oxygen following the die-off of an algae bloom that fish living in these bodies of water die. 

Cyanobacteria can cause the same issues (though cyanobacteria can be present without affecting the taste or smell of the water), but more important is the risk of toxicity- some species of cyanobacteria produce toxic substances called cyanotoxins. These toxins can cause serious neurological issues and organ failure and can result in death. Be sure to contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect a resident has been exposed to cyanotoxins or if they are showing neurological issues (tremors, seizures, or weakness) or are salivating excessively, have diarrhea, are vomiting, have bloody or dark feces, or have pale or yellow mucous membranes. 

Unfortunately, there is no way to determine whether or not a cyanobacteria bloom is producing toxins or not. To keep residents safe, always assume cyanobacteria blooms are producing toxins, and keep residents away. If you suspect a cyanobacteria bloom, be sure to contact your veterinarian for guidance about how to proceed, and be sure to keep residents away from this water until it has been deemed absolutely safe.

Without a microscope, it can be difficult to look at water sources and determine if water contains algae or cyanobacteria. Not only is the name “blue-green algae” misleading because the organism is not truly algae, it also is not always blue-green. Depending on the type, cyanobacteria may be various shades of green or have a purple hue, but heavy blooms are often described as resembling pea soup. When trying to determine whether or not you are dealing with algae or cyanobacteria, we strongly recommend you work with an expert.

Did You Know…
Blooms can be filamentous (stringy) or planktonic (individual bits that slip through your fingers). Algae blooms can take on either form, but according to information put out by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, there are no toxin-producing cyanobacteria that are filamentous. Large cyanobacteria blooms can result in clumps, which may be mistaken for a filamentous bloom, but by moving the water around, these clumps will break-up, revealing the individual bits (versus strings). Please note, cyanobacteria are harmful to humans as well as other animals, so don’t just plunge your bare hand into a water source to try to determine the type of bloom. Again, we strongly recommend working with an expert to determine what exactly you are dealing with. The same information put out by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada stresses that determining whether or not the bloom is filamentous or planktonic “is not a fail-safe method of identification.” Misidentification could have grave consequences, so be sure to consult with an expert.

As a side note, duckweeds are sometimes mistaken for an algae or cyanobacteria bloom but are not toxic and do not create that pea soup appearance often seen with heavy cyanobacteria blooms. Duckweeds are beneficial plants that can be identified by their small white roots that hang down into the water.

To recap, while blooms can occur under various conditions, large blooms typically occur when water is warm, following weather that is hot and calm. Additionally, they are more likely to occur in shallow, stagnant water that is high in organic nutrients, particularly phosphorus. You can reduce the risk of blooms in drinking water by thoroughly cleaning water containers daily.

What About Water Sources That Can’t Be Cleaned?

Preventing blooms in ponds and lakes can be difficult. Adding aeration to these bodies of water can be helpful because it prevents water from becoming stagnant and helps water maintain a consistent temperature throughout (versus the surface layer of water becoming very warm during hot weather). Aeration can be especially helpful in preventing cyanobacteria blooms since the organism really thrives in stagnant water. If adding aeration is not possible, smaller bodies of water can be kept moving by flushing them out with fresh water. For small human-made ponds, such as swimming ponds for waterfowl, consider adding a filtration system to help keep water clean.

In addition to aeration, finding ways to prevent nutrients from entering the water is helpful. Feces entering the water, either from runoff or directly from residents who have access to the water, will increase the nutrient level of the water, making it more conducive to blooms. Preventing your residents from getting into these bodies of water will help reduce fecal contamination, but because some water sources serve primarily as a means for residents to cool off or swim, permanently restricting access to these sources is not an option (however, if water is deemed unsafe due to a bloom or other containment, you will absolutely need to restrict your residents’ access in order to keep them safe). Instead of restricting every resident’s access to these water sources, it can be helpful to consider the role these water sources play in your residents’ lives and try to offer water sources for specific purposes (rather than having one shared body of water for all the species you care for). So, considering the importance of swimming opportunities or waterfowl, rather than having waterfowl residents swimming in water that pig and cow residents also have access to, you may want to look into offering the cows and pigs a different means of cooling off so as to reduce fecal contamination (and resultant nutrient levels) of your waterfowl residents’ swimming water.

Mud Wallow Woes
Mud wallows can be especially difficult to manage in regards to blooms. Water in wallows is likely high in nutrients, shallow, and stagnant, making it a perfect environment for blooms, especially during hot, sunny weather. In some regions, these water sources may need to be replenished daily just to keep them from drying out, and if water is limited, overflowing these sources regularly to flush them out may not be realistic. If you are able to, it can be helpful to create a system where water emptied from cleaning another water source (such as a water trough) flows into mud wallows in order to conserve water while still flushing out wallows regularly. The addition of a shade tarp may also be helpful.

Replenish Or Replace Water As Needed Between Cleanings

Regardless of whether your residents have water units that refill automatically or those that must be filled manually, regularly checking water containers is important. It’s good practice to train staff and volunteers to pay attention to waters whenever they enter resident living spaces. This doesn’t have to take a lot of time or add much to daily workloads- simply glancing at water containers and making note of water levels (or in the event of an issue, lack of water) is enough. This makes it more likely that issues will be caught early, preventing a situation where your residents go long stretches without water.

First let’s consider water units that fill automatically. When systems are working properly, you won’t have to worry about residents running out of water. However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are many things that could interfere with a system working the way it should. For example, the power may go out, a system may fail, someone may forget to turn the water back on after cleaning, or you may find that a water unit has been filled or buried by bedding. While water units that fill automatically can give you peace of mind, they still require monitoring to ensure they are working properly throughout the day and that nothing has happened that would prevent residents from drinking freely. 

Just as self-filling water units must be checked regularly, you must also monitor containers that are filled manually. You’ll likely get a sense of how much water your residents go through a day (though this may change depending on the temperature and also their diet). Ideally, water containers should hold enough water to get them through most of the day, if not the entire day, and you’ll want to schedule refilling these receptacles before they are empty. However, even if you are able to provide more than enough water to last until the next day’s cleaning, you still need to monitor water levels throughout the day. Just as something can go wrong with a self-filling water unit, things can go wrong with troughs, bowls, and buckets. Containers can crack and leak and smaller containers can be spilled. Gravity-fed units that are not level (perhaps from being knocked by a resident) can quickly run empty. And just like with self-filling water units, containers can be filled or buried by bedding or other debris, preventing residents from drinking freely, or even soaking up available water.

Find Ways To Make The Task Less Cumbersome!
Refilling waters is important, but can certainly be a lot of work depending on the size of the waters and your system for manually refilling waters. While carrying water jugs or buckets may work fine in some situations, if you have a lot of water containers to fill, hoses really come in handy. If you are filling a very large water trough, you may want to use a float valve so the trough can refill without you having to stand there for the whole process. When water reaches the float, it will automatically shut off (if installed properly and on level ground). Some folks are understandably nervous about using a float valve as a regular practice because if something goes wrong and the valve is knocked loose or the trough is not level, water will continue running indefinitely. Not only does this make a muddy mess, depending on your water situation, you could also risk running your well dry. Reserving float valves for the refilling process only, and having a good idea of how long it takes the trough to fill and then coming back to check on it, can free staff/ volunteers up to do other things while reducing the risk of something going wrong and inadvertently wasting a bunch of water. If water containers are too far from water sources to feasibly use a hose, but carrying water in jugs is unrealistic, consider if a portable water tank that can fit in the back of a utility vehicle or pickup truck is a good option.

In addition to paying attention to water levels, frequent monitoring of water will also allow you to replace water as needed if it becomes dirty, to ensure residents continue to have access to clean, palatable water. Different species bring different challenges when it comes to keeping water clean. You can read more about considerations for specific species in our Daily Diet, Supplements, And Treats resources

Depending on the weather, you may also need to replace or replenish water in order to keep it at a suitable temperature. During hot weather, water may become warm, making it less appealing and less refreshing. Replacing this water with cool water or topping it off with cool water can keep it at a temperature that is appealing to residents. When temperatures dip below freezing, not only can water freeze, preventing residents from drinking entirely, if water is very cold, some residents may drink less than they ideally should. This can result in dehydration and other health issues (such as impaction colic in equines). Using safe water heaters can help prevent water from freezing or becoming too cold.

Choosing The Right Container

Now that you’ve ensured water is safe and palatable through water testing and are working hard to keep it that way by establishing protocols for cleaning and replenishing water, it’s time to think about how to provide your residents’ drinking water. There are many options for water containers, ranging from bowls and buckets to large troughs or heated auto waterers. What works for one species, or even one group, may not work for another. Again, please refer to our Daily Diet, Supplements, And Treats resources for species-specific recommendations. When considering different water containers, keep the following in mind:

  • Residents must be able to easily reach the water inside the container (including when water levels drop, if the container must be manually filled). Take into consideration the physiology of the individuals- for example, a goat will be better able to reach up and into a water container than a pig because of the difference in the length of their neck.
  • As mentioned above, you want to choose an appropriately-sized container to ensure your residents do not run out of water without contributing to unnecessary water waste.
  • To avoid spills, either opt for containers that can be secured in place (for example a bucket or bowl can be secured to the wall in a wooden frame or a bucket can be hooked to the wall by attaching a clip to its handle) or choose containers that are bottom-heavy and unlikely to tip (such as those with a wide vs. narrow base or made from heavy vs. lightweight materials). Be sure to consider the species/ individuals- some species are more likely to tip waters than others. For example, pigs may flip waters while rooting and chickens (or other perching birds) may tip them by trying to perch on them.
  • When considering different materials, be sure to think about durability. Ceramic may work well for rabbits or chickens, but could be broken by a larger resident.
  • Consider if there are any safety hazards, including drowning risks, that come with using a particular design with certain species or individuals. During the colder months, consider if there is a risk of residents becoming wet by walking through or otherwise getting into water sources and then becoming chilled.
  • If weather will dip below freezing, you’ll either need a container that can be used with a safe heat source or will need to have a plan for providing fresh water throughout the day. If waters are at risk of freezing overnight, consider how easy or difficult it will be to empty them when frozen (a flexible rubber bowl will be much easier to empty than a stiff one), and make sure you have a plan to provide fresh water first thing in the morning.
  • Consider whether or not certain designs will be better able to keep water clean. For example, for many species, water containers that are taller, rather than low to the ground, may be less likely to be pooped in or walked through. Just make sure residents can easily reach the water!
  • In addition to the container’s ability to keep water clean, consider how easy it will be to keep the container itself clean. Textured surfaces may be more difficult to thoroughly clean than those that are smooth, and some designs may be difficult to clean if there are narrow or tight spaces.

Be Sure To Offer Enough Water Containers
In addition to considering the approximate volume of water needed, also consider the dynamics of the group and their drinking habits. If there are confrontational individuals or if the group tends to want to all drink at the same time (such as after a meal or after coming in from grazing), you’ll need to consider how to best accommodate this by offering multiple water containers or ones that are wide enough for multiple residents to drink at once.

Choosing The Right Location

Once you have picked out the best container for your residents and your setup, you’ll need to decide where to locate it. With some water systems, this will be a permanent location, but for others you will have the flexibility to move them as needed. When determining where to set up water containers, ask yourself the following:

  • Where do residents spend their time? You want to offer drinking water in an area (or multiple areas) that is easily and frequently accessed by residents- you don’t want them to have to go out of their way to get a drink of water. In some instances, it will make sense to have water both indoors and in their outdoor living space.
  • How will you fill the container? As we mentioned above, refilling water containers can be a cumbersome (but important) task, so be strategic about where you set up receptacles to make the process as easy as possible. If planning to carry in water, consider where the nearest spigot or water source is and how feasible this process will be. If you plan to use hoses, will they have to go through resident areas? If so, how likely are they to chew or play with hoses? (Pigs love to drag hoses to a new location of their choosing!) Also consider if the hoses will create a trip hazard for human or non-human animals.
  • If conditions are conducive to algae or cyanobacteria, how can you prevent blooms? Keeping open water containers out of direct sunlight can help prevent blooms, as can keeping water aerated or otherwise moving.
  • Are there certain areas where you should avoid setting up water because it is more likely to get dirty or full of debris? For example, setting up a sheep water right by a hay rack could result in the water becoming full of hay, and a turkey water under an area where someone likes to perch is sure to get poop on/ in it. Outdoors, having water in a shaded area under a tree may help prevent blooms, but during times of the year when leaves, seeds, etc. are falling from the tree, you may want to relocate the water to limit the amount of organic matter introduced.
  • What about electrical needs? If you’re going to need to plug-in a safe heat source to prevent water from freezing, you’ll want to find a way to position the water so that you can plug the device directly into an outlet rather than using an extension cord, and will also need to secure the cord so that residents cannot chew on or get tangled in the chord. Be sure to keep fire safety in mind!

Water is an essential nutrient and plays a huge role in the health and well-being of your residents. Creating protocols to ensure drinking water safety, cleanliness, palatablilty, and accessibility will help ensure your residents are able to drink freely and that the water they consume has a positive, rather than negative, impact on their health and well-being.

SOURCES:

Safe Water for Horses, Questions About Water Testing | Virginia Cooperative Extension

How To Test Your Tap Water | Consumer Reports

Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries’ Animal Care Standards

Preventing Waterborne Germs at Home | Centers For Disease Control And Prevention

Biofilms: The Good And The Bad | Water Quality And Health Council 

Biofilms in Drinking Water Distribution Systems: Significance and Control | Identifying Future Water Contaminants

Algae, Cyanobacteria And Water Quality | Agriculture And Agri-Food Canada

Blue-green Algae: Keeping Pets and Livestock Safe this Summer |Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostics Laboratory

Livestock Water Quality: A Field Guide For Cattle, Horses, Poultry, And Swine | Andrew A. Olkowski, PhD., DVM., MSc., BSc. (Biochemistry) (Non-Compassionate Source)

Advice On Testing And Keeping Water Clean For Livestock | Farmers Weekly (Non-Compassionate Source)

Keep Livestock Water Troughs Clean This Summer | Texas Agriculture Daily (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?
If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on August 26, 2021

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