Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Breaking the Ice on Animal Dehydration

As you have probably noticed, the majority of the United States has experienced a relatively mild winter thus far. With that said, most of us will likely still experience several cold snaps where freezing temperatures will occur. Along with freezing temperatures comes the dreaded trips to the water trough to break the ice so animals can get a drink. Frozen water troughs also increase the possibility of dehydration among our animals which can lead to other complications like colic, decrease in milk production, and weight loss. While dehydration is often associated with warm temperatures, it can just as likely (and sometimes more likely) happen during the winter as well.

Some ways to minimize your trips to break the ice include:
  • Purchase a water heater from a farm supply store if frozen water is common in your area. Both floating and submersible models are available. Make sure the model you purchase has an automatic shutoff feature in case your animals remove the heater from the water and cover the cord with PVC pipe to keep animals from chewing the cord.
  • Place a basketball or soccer ball in water troughs that do not have electricity nearby or do not freeze as often. As animals drink or as the wind blows, the ball will move around preventing ice from building up as quickly.
  • Some automatic waterers are designed to prevent ice accumulation. Remember that the water source should not be exposed to the elements though, so be sure you are purchasing a model that is freeze-resistant.
  • Wrap all exposed pipes to prevent the water inside them from freezing. Certain types of faucets such as Bury Hydrants are designed to automatically drain water from the pipes that are above ground, thus preventing frozen pipes. In extremely cold areas, heated pipe tape or in-line pipe heaters can be used.
  • If your pipes do freeze, start unthawing them at the faucet in the “on” position, then work backwards. Starting in the middle could build up pressure that could burst the pipe.

A few ways to tell if your animal is dehydrated include: irritability, lack of energy, dry mucous membranes (mouth, tongue, nostrils, and eyes), decreased lactation, and “sunken in” looking eyes. A way you can test for dehydration includes the “pinch test” – grasp the animal’s skin between your thumb and index finger, then let go. If the skin stays tented for a couple of seconds, the animal is likely dehydrated. Well hydrated animals’ skin should quickly snap back into place. Another test includes lightly pressing your thumb against the animal’s gums. The gums should turn white, then back to pink soon after. If gums remain white for more than a few seconds, this is another sign of dehydration.

Following these suggestions will help keep your animals hydrated and healthy and hopefully minimize your trips to the water trough with the crow bar!


  1. A little clarification on your automatic waterer information. With today's technology, the water can be exposed to the elements if the waterer is designed to remain open, even in extreme conditions. If you are using an automatic waterer, in many cases, you do not need to wrap the pipes. In most installations, the waterline is buried and housed beneath the waterer. A heat cable provided by the automatic waterer will help prevent freezing. A major thing that you did not mention is that the waterline should not be touching the ground or anything that is exposed to the elements. Such as an outside wall of the waterer. The water line should be centered in a riser tube of sorts to prevent frost from traveling over to the waterline.