XVIII. Water in Animal Nutrition

This chapter discusses the role and importance of water in food-producing animals.


New Terms
Metabolic water
Total dissolved solids
Water quality

Chapter Objective

  • To introduce and discuss the physiological role, requirement, and quality of water for maintaining animal health and productivity

Water is essential for sustaining life and ranks second to oxygen in importance. Water is needed in greater quantity than any other orally ingested substance and is classified as a macronutrient. Sources of water include drinking water, metabolic water (produced during catabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to carbon dioxide and water), and the water that presents as moisture in different feed ingredients. Metabolic water serves as the sole source of water in desert and hibernating animals, and feed water is the major water source for marine animals.

Where Animals Obtain Water

  • Feed
  • Drinking water
  • Metabolic water

Why Is Water Important for Livestock?

Water is important for all organisms. Water makes up one-half to two-thirds of the body mass of adult animals and more than 90% of the body mass of newborn animals. Water is an essential constituent of almost all secretions of the body. Within the body, water is a universal solvent that facilitates cellular biochemical reactions involving digestion, absorption, and transportation of nutrients. The aqueous medium of water helps different digestives juices and food components interact, enhancing digestion, and helps in the excretion of waste products in the form of urine, feces, and perspiration, sweat, from the animal body. Because of the high specific heat of water, it helps in regulating body temperature, by absorbing the heat generated through different metabolic reactions. Water also regulates body temperature through evaporation as sweat or transports heat away from organs through blood. Water provides shape to body cells. Water helps in maintaining the acid-base balance of the body. Water acts as a cushion for tissue cells and the nervous system and protects the various vital organs against shocks and injuries.

Water is the single most important nutrient in the animal body. It is essential for all metabolic processes, chemical reactions, temperature regulation, eliminating waste from the body, and ultimately, health and survival.

Water Sources and Losses

The animal body derives water from different sources. These include drinking water, water present as part of feeds (moisture), or those liberated during several metabolic reactions. The importance of these different sources varies among species, habitat, and diet. For example, hibernating animals and desert rodents depend on metabolic water to keep them alive, whereas marine animals depend on their diet to derive their water requirements. Metabolic water also depends on the type of nutrient catabolized. Oxidation of fat produces the greatest amount of metabolic water. However, overall contribution of metabolic water to daily water needs is less than 5% to 10% in most animals. The water content of feed consumed by ruminant and nonruminant animals vary highly. Forages consumed by ruminant animals vary from 5% to 7% for mature plant products, such as hay, to more than 90% for young lush green vegetation. Animals such as sheep depend a lot on water derived from such green forages for their need. Most commercial diets fed to nonruminant animals such as pigs and poultry may contain 7% to 10% moisture. Some of the canned foods fed to pet animals such as dogs and cats may contain more than 75% moisture.

All animals experience daily water loss through different venues such as urine, feces, sweat, saliva, evaporation from the lungs through respiration, and milk in lactating animals. Among these, urinary loss accounts for the major loss. Water lost through urine serves as a tool to dispose of the toxic products of metabolism. Some animals such as birds are capable of concentrating urine and excreting it as uric acid instead of urea and thus conserving water. Urinary water loss depends on weather and on the type of food consumed. Consumption of excess water during heat stress can increase urinary volume. Animals that consume high-fibrous diets excrete more water in their feces. Fecal water excretion is higher in cows (30%–32%) compared to sheep (13%–24%) that void pellet-type dry feces to minimize water loss. Sweating is a means to dissipate body heat. In animals such as horses, loss of water through sweating is high. Animals such as chickens and dogs have very poorly developed sweat glands and compensate for heat loss by panting and increasing water intake. Daily clean water consumption is needed to make up for all the losses and is extremely important during periods of heat stress, especially in animals such as poultry.


Animal L/day Gal/day
Beef cattle 26-66 6.5-17
Dairy cattle 38-110 9.5-28
Horses 30-45 7-12
Sheep and goats 4-15 1-4


Water Requirements

An animal’s water requirement depends on several factors such as ambient temperature, diet (energy level, fiber content, salt), physiological state (age, growth, pregnancy, ability to conserve water), level of exercise, and health. Environmental temperature (and associated humidity) is a major factor contributing to water intake. Water consumption, when expressed by unit of body weight for non-heat-stressed, nonlactating cattle, is around 5% to 6% of the body weight per day (or 2–5 kg of water for every kg of dry feed consumed) and can go up to 12% or more under heat stress. Water intake increases with higher environmental temperatures and increasing physical activity because of water lost through evaporative loss.
Dietary dry matter intake and feed water content are highly correlated with water intake at moderate temperatures. High-energy, high-fat, and high-protein diets increase water intake because of increases in metabolic waste and urinary excretion of urea as well as increases in heat produced by metabolism. The salt content of a diet increases water consumption. Diets high in fiber (bran, dry forages) increase water intake as well. Young animals have higher water requirements per body size as compared to large animals. Similarly, animals that conserve water, such as sheep and poultry, need lower levels than cattle. Pregnancy and milk production increases water intake too. Dairy cattle may require 38–110 L/d compared to beef cattle at 22–66 L/d.

Ambient temperature is the major factor affecting an animal’s water intake. Other factors include age, type of diet, level of exercise, stage of growth, or pregnancy.

Water Restriction and Toxicity

Water shortage affects both domestic and wild animals. To compensate for the losses and to maintain all related physiological functions, animals should have access to a clean supply of water. Lack of enough water could lead to a reduction in feed intake and productivity. Dehydration of the body leads to a reduction in body weight and the consequences are worse in high environmental temperatures. Dehydration is accompanied by a loss of electrolytes, an increase in body temperature, and an increase in respiratory rate. Animals become highly irritable, and prostration and death follow after severe water deprivation. Water intoxication may occur as a result of a sudden ingestion of large amounts of water after a short period of deprivation and is due to the slow adaptation of the kidneys to the high water load.

Water restriction reduces feed consumption and is very stressful for animals.

Water Quality

Water per se is almost nontoxic, but problems with water arise from contamination with microbes, parasites, minerals, and various other toxic substances, such as pesticides. Water quality affects consumption, productivity, and animal health. Substances such as salts, pathogenic organisms, algae, and pesticides pollute water supplies and can affect palatability.

Mineral salts include carbonate and bicarbonates, sulfates, and chlorides of Ca, Mg, Na, and K. Other toxic substances in water include nitrate, iron salts, and hydrocarbons. Contamination with nitrate is common in farming intensive areas. Concentrations above 1,500 ppm may cause toxicity causing death from anoxia. Iron salts in groundwater cause rust deposits on pipes and may cause bacterial contamination by iron-utilizing bacteria. Pesticides such as malathion and organophosphates may get into water systems and can be toxic. Certain blue-green algae (cyanogenic) in lakes can produce toxic substances. Toxicity in livestock causing vomiting, frothing, muscle tremors, liver damage, and death are reported due to blue-green algae toxicosis.

Water quality can influence the development of polioencephalomalacia, a noninfectious disease affecting the brain in feedlot cattle. Most affected animals show aimless wandering, disorientation, blindness, recumbency, star-gazing posture, and edema in the brain, causing a “softness” in the brain. Water high in sulfates promotes polioencephalomalacia, apparently via a complex interaction with other minerals and B vitamins. Most domestic animals can tolerate a total dissolved solid concentration of 15,000 to 17,000 mg/L. Water containing less than 1,000 mg/L of total soluble salt is safe for all classes of livestock. At higher (> 5,000–7,000 mg/L) levels, it may cause mild diarrhea and an increase in mortality in poultry, but it could be acceptable to other livestock. A guideline for the interpretation of total dissolved solids in water is shown in table 18.1.

Table 18.1. Guidelines for interpretation of total dissolved solids content in water
Total dissolved solids, mg/L Interpretation 
<1000 Suitable for all classes of livestock
1000-1999 Satisfactory for all classes of livestock; may produce transient diarrhea in animals
2000-4999 Temporary water refusal and diarrhea may be seen when animals are exposed to such water sources. May reduce productivity in dairy cattle.
5000-6999 Likely to reduce productivity in dairy cattle. May reduce growth rates. May result in water refusal and diarrhea. Avoid if possible.
7000-10000 Unfit for swine, very risky in all other species. Avoid.
> 10000 Dangerous, avoid.




Key Points

  1. Water is one of the most important nutrients, yet it is almost always neglected. Water serves as the fluid matrix of the animal body. Water gives form and structure and provides protection from environmental stress. The high solvent power of water permits the formation of solutions within which metabolic reactions occur.
  2. There are different sources of water (e.g., diet, drinking, metabolic).
  3. Metabolic water is produced during catabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins to carbon dioxide and water and is important for hibernating animals.
  4. Species difference, type of metabolism, and digestive tract type affect water requirements. For example, birds and fish have low requirements, while ruminants need a large quantity of water to suspend ingesta in the rumen.
  5. An animal’s water requirement is highly influenced by environmental temperature, humidity, diet (energy level, fiber content, salt), physiological state (age, growth, pregnancy), and level of exercise and health.
  6. Water restriction affects animal health, growth, and productivity and is very stressful for animals.
  7. Water containing less than 1,000 mg/L of total soluble salt is safe for all classes of livestock.

Review Questions

  1. Water is one of the most important essential nutrients. Functions of water include:
    1. Can act as a diluent
    2. Carrier of waste from the body
    3. Transport of nutrients
    4. All of the above
  2. List the sources of water in the animal body.
  3. Major loss of water in a beef cattle is through which medium?
  4. Water quality can affect cattle health. Name a non infectious disease in feedlot cattle associated with water quality.


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A Guide to the Principles of Animal Nutrition Copyright © 2019 by Gita Cherian is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.