Animal welfare at the fair: Water consumption

Learn ways to keep animals drinking and hydrated during the fair.

Rabbit drinking water in a pen.
Access to clean, cool, fresh water delivered in a species-appropriate way is vital for animals to maintain good welfare during the fair. Photo by Linn County Fair, CC BY-ND 2.0.

Maintaining good animal welfare and animal care is paramount in the 4-H animal science experience. Youth, volunteers and parents spend months preparing animals to show at fair or exposition, a unique experience for both 4-H members and the animals. In order to maintain excellent animal welfare during a fair or exposition, there are a few special considerations to keep in mind. This series from Michigan State University Extension will talk through several of these considerations. Thermoregulation and the thermoneutral zone and heat stress were the first two in the series. This article addresses animal’s water consumption during the fair.

In learning about thermoregulation, the thermoneutral zone and heat stress, it became apparent water is very important to both mitigate and treat heat stress. Water is the most important nutrient for livestock as it is vital for almost all body systems to function properly. Water can be obtained through both direct consumption as well as the moisture content of food. Water needs change for each individual animal based on many different things, some of which include ambient temperature, stage of production, age and size.

Taking animals to fair present a few challenges to think about and prepare for ahead of time. Consider these questions:

  • Will the animal have free access to water 24 hours a day?
  • Is water delivered in the same method (e.g., trough, nipple water, bottle, etc.) during the fair as it is at home?
  • Does the water at the fairgrounds taste the same as the water at home?

Ideally, animals should have access to fresh, cool, clean water all the time, but that might not be possible during the fair. Depending on the animal, pen size, location, barn set up, equipment available and other factors, there may be restrictions on water access. If this is the case, it is imperative to make sure animals have frequent and regular visits to a water station. Youth, volunteers and parents should also know and watch for signs of dehydration. Common signs include:

  • Lethargy
  • Skin tightening/loss of elasticity
  • Weight loss
  • Dry mucus membranes
  • Dry eyes
  • Hard, dry manure

It’s difficult to say precisely how much water an animal needs to remain hydrated as there are so many factors that impact it. These charts from North Dakota State University and Penn State Extension provide guidance for several different species in different stages of production or size and with different ambient temperatures.

Water delivery is another important part to consider at fair. Livestock, much like humans, need time to learn and adjust to change. Not only can it be stressful to be in a new environment, but there may be new things to learn, such as how to drink out of a different vessel. Environmental stress alone may hinder hydration for a short time. Combine that with having to relearn how to drink complicates things further.

If there will be different water delivery methods at fair versus at home, start working with the animal at home to become familiar with a different way to drink as best you can. This should be done over several weeks, not just a day or two before move-in. The animal will need time to acclimate and understand a new part of either environment. Taking the time to work with you animal around this will help to reduce one stressor around fair.

How water tastes at home versus the fairgrounds is something else to keep in mind. If humans can taste a difference, animals surely can too. The different in taste might not change how much water the animal consumes, or it could reduce consumption because it just doesn’t taste right. This is something else to prepare for a few weeks ahead of fair. In some instances, it may be possible to bring water from home so there is no change in flavor, but that’s not viable for every animal, every 4-Her or every fair. One method to mask different water flavor is to add a small amount of an electrolyte sports drink to the water. Start this at home so the animal is familiar with the flavor of the water/electrolyte sports drink mix and continue it throughout the fair.

Water delivery and availability is of the utmost importance for animal to maintain good welfare during the fair, but there are also things to keep in mind around food and food consumption. The next article in the series will talk about feeding animals during the fair.

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