EquiSearch's Ask the Vet: Water Quality

How safe is your horse's drinking water? Find out what toxins he may be ingesting and how to combat them in this edition of EquiSearch.com's Ask the Vet.
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How safe is your horse's drinking water? Find out what toxins he may be ingesting and how to combat them in this edition of EquiSearch.com's Ask the Vet.

Question:I have a friend who adds an unmeasured amount of bleach to her horses' daily drinking water to keep algae growth at bay. I told her it would ruin the horses' kidneys after years of ingestion. What do you recommend?

Answer: Water quality is a very important topic these days. Water is actually the "food" that a horse consumes more of per day than any other. By weight, horses consume 2-3 times as much water as food. If the water contains toxins, high levels of minerals or any other unbalanced agent, nutritional problems can occur.

As has been widely reported in the media, water quality throughout the nation is suspect, even well and spring water in the country far from the polluted cities. Consumer Reports and other media reported many problems even 20 or more years ago. Bottled water quality is often suspect also, as there have been reports of contamination and of municipal water being bottled as spring water. And we are not about to give our horses bottled water, so tap water quality becomes very important. I used to go to a large boarding stable that had a sign over the tap that read, "Water not potable, do not drink." But 40 horses had to drink it every day.

In my practice, water quality problems have been linked to health problems at a number of farms. If your horses drink water that runs off surrounding farm land that has been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides, has had sludge applied or collects water from road drainage or industrial plants your horse likely consumes toxins every day from streams or wet places in the field. Even ground water may not be pure anymore, and the well you have may not collect water from nearby, since aquifers under the ground often bring water from hundreds of miles away.

Horses that drink out of a tub are at the mercy of their caregivers to keep the water clean and fresh. A large tub cannot be easily dumped and refilled every day, but should have fresh water added daily. Keeping a tub free of algae can be a challenge; however, there are many natural and safe products on the market that can help, such as Stock Tank Water Cleaner and Barley Straw Pond Treatment, plus local products. For any of these products to work, the tubs need to be somewhat clean to begin with. If the tub is large enough, fish can be kept in the tank, and they will work hard to keep the algae down.

Chlorine is toxic, even in the very small amounts added to municipal water supplies. The data is abundant, both on the web and through many books (a few examples: The Risks of Drinking Chlorinated Water and Health Effects of Chlorine in Drinking Water). Data from human research shows that the chlorine gas we are exposed to by taking a shower is absorbed though the skin in larger amounts than even what we drink from the same tap. So, breathing the water vapors adds to the toxic load for both humans and animals. Since your friend is not measuring the amount of bleach (chlorine) she adds, it is likely that the levels are much higher in the tubs than is safe for anyone to be around.

Chlorine is added to kill bacteria and essentially sterilize the water. The horse's gut requires bacteria for all the normal processes (see "EquiSearch's Ask the Vet: Runny Manure" for a discussion about gut bacteria). So high levels of chlorine will kill off good gut bacteria, which leads to all sorts of health problems. Toxic levels of chlorine can cause a number of health conditions, none of which have been documented in the equine, so we really do not know all the possible adverse effects.

It is possible to remove chlorine from the water supply if you have it. The most practical and efficient method for removing chlorine, chlorine by-products and taste and odor problems, is to filter it with granular activated carbon (GAC) or other suitable chemical-removing filter media, such as KDF. Activated charcoal filters can easily and cheaply be placed on a hydrant in a barn, even if you just board there. The important thing is to keep the filters cleaned according to the manufacturer's specifications. Small filters can be taken with you when you go to shows and just used when you fill your water buckets or wash your horse. A comprehensive review of filters can be found in the article "The Word on Water Filters."

If you have concerns about toxins your horse may have been exposed to, a high quality hair analysis can be done. These can be obtained through your holistic veterinarian, and though there are many hair analysis companies out there, most want to sell you products based on the results. This can lead to spending huge amounts of money on supplements. You will get more accurate information with a company that does not customize formulas based on the test.

Pay close attention to the water supply for your horse, as well as the other animals and humans in your life. It is important to have clean, healthy water and to conserve that high quality water.

Dr. Joyce Harman is a veterinarian and respected saddle-fitting expert certified in veterinary acupuncture and veterinary chiropractic; she is also trained in homeopathy and herbal medicine. Her Harmany Equine Clinic is in northern Virginia. Visit her online shop.

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