Access to water is important to all mammals. Cattle without ready access to drinking water are vulnerable to water belly, the development of urinary calculi in the bladder. Most common in steers, water belly can eventually cause a perforated urethra or bladder rupture -- and death. Adequate water consumption keeps urine from concentrating and calculi from forming.
Urinary calculi, or stones, can form in an animal's kidneys or bladder. If they migrate to the urethra, they can block the urine flow. Bulls and male calves can also suffer from them, although they aren't as frequently affected as steers. Since the urethrae of cows and heifers are much larger, urinary obstruction is rare in females. Should a urethra rupture, urine begins collecting under the animal's belly, which gave rise to the term water belly. If the bladder ruptures, the animal will be out of pain temporarily but usually dies from toxemia within two days.
It's not enough to just provide your cattle water. You must ensure that the water is the right temperature for them to drink and that the cattle take in sufficient water. While it's obvious that cattle must stay hydrated in the heat of summer, it's equally important that they consume enough water in cold weather. All year, water should range between 40 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Livestock often won't drink very cold water, and it's no good for them to eat snow or chew ice. Keep water tanks clean. If you're using automated waterers, check them regularly to make sure they are working and properly insulated so they don't freeze in cold weather.
A steer suffering from water belly appears uncomfortable, constantly switching his tail, licking his abdomen and frequently moving his hind legs. An affected animal might keep lying down and getting up. He frequently tries to urinate, straining but producing little or no flow. The urine that does pass is often bloody. Monitor your cattle frequently so you can catch water belly symptoms early.
If your cattle are grain-fed, you can add small amounts of salt to their ration to increase thirst, causing them to drink more water. Provide cattle who forage on grass with salt licks. The grain ration should have a ratio of 2 parts calcium to 1 part phosphorous to help prevent urinary calculi formation. Delaying castration in calves reduces the incidence of water belly, as intact males have larger urethrae than steers.
Many cattle producers might ship affected animals directly to slaughter as the cheapest way to handle the problem. If this isn't an option for you, your vet can provide medication to relax the urinary tract, possibly allowing stones to pass. If they're discovered early on, surgical removal of the stones is a possibility.
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