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Archive: Yucky Water Dishes and Why You Should Clean Them 2020

In September I started a new content idea on social media, sharing petcare tips that I think are really important or helpful. My first choice was about cleaning water dishes. It is one of the first things I tackle when petsitting because I want to make sure the pet is happy and healthy while I am responsible for their well-being. There is a yucky film that can develop and I have learned over the years that it can be a health problem. Clients have requested that I wash the water bowls daily due to previous health concerns, particularly acne which formed on the pet’s chin. I have also noticed that pets, especially cats, will not drink enough water and this can be because their water dish has the yucky film on it which affects the taste. I became a bit obsessed with this particular task as a pet sitter and would do what I call the ‘paper towel test’ on the water dish after I rinse it out. If there is brown or pink gunk then I scrub it thoroughly. This film also seems to come back quickly so I would be careful to wash it more often than a bowl that passed my crude test.

When I Googled it to get some more insight I was pretty grossed out by my findings. The main article was from 2018 by Stanley Coren, a well known dog expert I use to watch on TV, titled ‘What is Lurking in Your Dog’s Water Bowl?”. It discusses many problems and research related to water bowl cleanliness, material types, and possible consequences. One of the issues is plastic, which can be problematic depending on the type/quality of plastic used as well as if it is scratched up. What struck me was that while ceramic is a safer material it can be as bad or worse because of cracks that can form in the glaze which can be a breeding ground for bacteria. Stainless steel seemed to perform better, though in my experience it can still fail my ‘paper towel test’ and needs regular cleaning.

The article also named Serratia Marcescens as the bacteria that we see as that pink film at the bottom of the bowl. When I Googled that so many medical concerns popped up. I am sure it is more dangerous when it forms in a hospital care situation, particularly on equipment that should be sterile, but nevertherless it is still scary.

On top of that, what we cannot see with the naked eye can be just as bad. Both Salmonella and E. coli were found to be present on water dishes in the research Dr. Coren is discussing.

Recently I watched an online presentation by Dr. Jean Gauvin, a veterinary dental specialist, and he mentioned a link between the bacteria in a water dish to dental health. He said that when plaque forms on the tooth it can form on top of this bad bacteria causing more serious dental problems. This is another reason to keep your pet’s water bowl clean, as well as clean your pet’s teeth. But, I will tackle the topic of dental health more thoroughly at a later date.

So to sum up…

It is critical that you clean your pet’s water dishes regularly! Rinsing out with hot water is not sufficient.

Wash with warm soapy water or run through the dishwasher. If you use plastic make sure to wash frequently, and if you notice scratches it may be time to get a new bowl – preferably stainless steel if at all possible.

Other pets…

If you have a pet that is sensitive to chemicals like a bird, amphibian or reptile just be careful how you sanitize your bowls. You may need need to use elbow grease rather than soap, and change bowls more often. If you have any concerns about a specific species please ask your veterinarian or local specialized animal rescue to find out what they use and can recommend. When I volunteered at the local Zoo we used a special type of cleaning product for the Vivarium that was safe for reptiles, but it required special protocols to ensure everything was thoroughly cleaned and ready to go back into the enclosure.

Some species, like hermit crabs, may be sensitive to metals so you cannot use stainless steel in those cases. Again, just do some research and reach out to your veterinarian, specialty pet store, or other experts to find out what is the safest option for your particular pet.


Here is a link to Stanley Coren’s article if you would like to read more:

Originally published November 11, 2020

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