Yes, too much water can kill your calf!

Some of the crossbred cows of Chairlady of Esupuko CBO Brookside in Kajiado. [Edward Kiplimo/Standard]

Dear Dakari


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Thanks for the good work of educating us on dairy farming. I am a dairy farmer and have some concerns. The other day, something tragic happened to my six-month-old calf. My wife and I are the workers in our farms. One day, we attended a funeral in the afternoon and left enough feeds for the zero grazed dairy cows and two calves.

The following day, I spent the whole day with the animals but realised a bit late that the calf was not fine. The next day it was dead and when I called the local vet, he did a postmortem and said the animal died of water intoxication. I give my animals the same water I drink and I do not understand why the same water became toxic. Kindly educate me on water intoxication. [Cyrus Ndung’u, Maragua]

Thank you Mr Ndung’u for reading the Smart Harvest. 

Yes, your veterinary doctor was very right about the diagnosis. Good water can kill animals through water intoxication.

What is water intoxication?

Water intoxication occurs when an animal drinks a lot of water than is required by the biological system. It is a deadly condition that results when dehydrated animals drink too much water so quickly affecting electrolyte balance and subsequently osmotic balance of body fluids. The result is that more water goes into the system than the system can remove affecting the brain and kidney functions. Cattle for example are supposed to drink 1.5 per cent of its body weight daily.

Which animals are affected? 


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It is common in hot weather conditions, following a lot of exercising like running around. Diarrhoea and fever have also been documented as predisposing factors. When the above conditions are prevailing water intoxication follows because farm animals and more so those under zero grazing are normally on unlimited access to water. Water intoxication occurs in sheep, dogs, pigs, camels and cattle. The condition is common in calves, especially bucket fed ones when they are given lots of bucket water and also by the fact that calves have a relatively large stomach space to hold water.

Signs and symptoms

Common signs of water intoxication include red or bloody urine due to breakdown of red blood cells, shaking of muscles all over the body, reduced body temperature, excess salivation, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, standing hair, swollen eyelids weakness and repeated opening and closing of eyes.

In severe cases, death occurs between one to two days if the condition is not managed by an animal health profession. In mild cases, the animal gets back to normal status within four hours without veterinary intervention. 

Treatment and prevention

Fortunately, water intoxication is a treatable condition. The vet needs to play around with osmotic pressure to rid the body off excess fluid. In mild conditions, 5 per cent saline is used while in severe conditions 5 per cent dextrose saline and tranquilisers are used. Avoid unlimited access to water by animals initially denied of the same. Knowledge of the disease increases the farmer’s risk perception and hence quick veterinary intervention. Animals in drought conditions, those in poor body condition or calves are at risk categories.

-The writer is Vet of the Year Award winner and works in the Division of Communication and Vet Advisory Services within the Directorate of Veterinary Services


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