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Water that kills Livestock


A herd of cows drinking water at Lengenet village, Rongai sub-county. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Thanks for the educative articles on various livestock health issues. I keep some dairy animals. I recently lost my calf to a strange condition I had never heard of. This pushed me to seek the services of a veterinary doctor who after doing the postmortem found that my calf had died of water intoxication. I have learned the hard way a reason I am sharing my experience so that other farmers can benefit from this experience. I have read a round and am now better prepared to prevent water intoxication in my future calves. - Akudabweni Samuel, Kakamega

Thanks, Samuel, for sharing your case. I am really sorry that you had to lose your calf to this preventable condition.

Many farmers think that animals can take in as much water without any harm. They are wrong, too much water can be fatal to an animal. It causes water intoxication, a clinical condition resulting from ingesting excessive amounts of water. This condition is common in calves but has also been reported in adult animals but in rare cases. It has also been reported in pigs, sheep and camels.

Predisposing factors

High environmental temperatures and excessive exercise will create a thirst and a feeling of drinking water.  Calves are prone to water intoxication if they are given milk from the bucket and the same is used to give them water. Calves do not have the physiological capacity to stop their consumption of water until the stomach is completely filled. In addition, a calf has a larger gut capacity, and this easily causes water intoxication if a lot of good water is given ad-lib. Just like in adult cattle exercising, high environmental temperatures can increase water intake in calves. When a calf that has been denied water is suddenly exposed to water, it can also ingest lots of it.  The ingested water gets into the systems and causes the destruction of cells hence the red coloration of urine.

Signs of water intoxication

Calves will show excess urination of red urine as the body tries to remove the excess water in the system, diarrhoea, low body temperature, excess salivation, enlarged stomach, stomach pains, erect body hair and swollen eyelids.  Other signs are neurological and include muscular tremors, repeated eye movements (nystagmus), weakness, coma and death within one or two days.

Postmortem lesions

Many signs will be observed at postmortem, and they include swelling of the brain, urinary bladder and damage to the kidneys making them appear dark in colour, and fluid accumulation in abdominal and thoracic cavities. Diagnosis is normally based on a history of excess ingestion of water following a period of restricted access sudden onset of nervous clinical signs and death within one to two days. If a veterinary doctor is called in at the right time water intoxication can be treated through intravenous injection of fluids and tranquillizers. Unfortunately, most farmers never think that water can kill a calf and the slow response reduces chances of healing.

Water intoxication can be prevented through the provision of mineral salt lick blocks and by ensuring the right amount of water is ingested. Never expose calves to a lot of water following a period of restricted access. Timely observation will help increase the chances of recovery.

(Dr Othieno is a veterinary surgeon and currently the head of communications at FAO Kenya. Views expressed here are not necessarily those of FAO but his own)

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