Communal Water Bowls – Are They Safe?
You might be thankful when you and your pup are strolling down the street on a warm day and you see a water bowl sitting outside of a pet-friendly business just waiting to provide your dog with the hydration they so desperately need — but wait!
You may just want to take a pause before letting your dog take that water break. And the same goes for that water bowl at your local dog park! Why? Because of the very real possibility that while your dog is quenching their thirst from a public water bowl, they could also be lapping up bacteria, viruses, or even parasites that could make them quite sick. You know what they say … a moment on the lips ... could lead to sleepless nights of diarrhea.
OK, even if that’s not really how that saying goes, it’s still a good idea to keep it in mind when you come across a communal or public water bowl for your dog. Here’s what you need to know and how you can safely keep your pup hydrated when out and about.
What diseases can lurk in public dog water bowls?
Dog bowls can be cesspools of all kinds of disease-causing microbes. In fact, this 2011 study from the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), found that dog bowls are the fourth “germiest” item in our homes. And that’s in our homes … imagine how much germier public dog bowls are!
Here’s some of the “germs” and diseases that can be hanging out in a communal or public water bowl just waiting for your dog to slurp them up:
This protozoal parasite of the intestines causes Giardiasis (sometimes called “Beaver Fever”) and is a common cause of diarrhea in dogs. The degree or severity of diarrhea that Giardia infection causes in dogs varies and can range from mild to severe, depending on the subtype of Giardia the dog is infected with, their parasite load, their age, and a host of other factors. Some dogs can even be what we call “subclinical shedders,” meaning that they’re infected with the Giardia parasite and shedding the infective cysts (meaning that they can serve as a source of infection for other dogs), yet they’re not showing the clinical signs of diarrhea.
Giardia is spread by fecal contamination, or what’s called the “fecal-oral route,” and the Giardia parasite doesn’t just survive in water, it actually thrives in it! And while most dogs don’t go around pooping in water bowls, plenty of them do stick their paws in and play with the water in water bowls! And if any of those paws have recently walked on Giardia-contaminated ground, poop, or a puddle … that’s all it takes to create a nice “Giardia soup” for your pup to slurp down. There is no vaccine to help protect against Giardia in dogs. Learn more about Giardia (CDC website), including how it can even sicken people.
Similar to the Giardia parasite, the Leptospire bacteria (the causative organism of Leptospirosis) absolutely LOVE water! The infective bacteria are spread through urine from an infected animal, and it doesn’t even need to be another dog. In fact, one of the most common ways that Lepto bacteria find their way into water is from infected rodents, like rats. And whether you’ve seen them or not, rats are pretty common in and around dog parks (and throughout many cities, too)! That said, while most dogs won’t poop into the water bowl at the dog park, there are plenty of dogs that will pee in them! Let’s face it; some dogs can be total jerks! (Although dogs with Lepto may actually not be able to help it — one of the main problems that Lepto causes in dogs is kidney failure, which means that an affected dog is likely to drink and pee a ton more as their kidneys progress through the different stages of failure.) Lepto is highly contagious amongst dogs and, like Giardia, Lepto is also a zoonotic public health risk that can affect people. There are safe and effective vaccines to help protect dogs from Lepto — talk to your vet about the Lepto vaccine for your dog and learn more about available dog vaccines. Learn more about Leptospirosis (CDC website).
Intestinal Worm Parasites
The infective eggs of common canine intestinal worm parasites such as roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms, can be found in fecal-contaminated water bowls. Again, think of all the dogs you see using their paws to splash around and play with the water in a water bowl … if that paw has recently stepped in poop, or dug in or walked over ground that is contaminated with intestinal worm eggs — all of which is quite likely in a dog park — then there’s a good chance that the water they’re dipping their paws into is now also contaminated. Roundworms, hookworms, and whipworms don’t just cause diarrhea in dogs, but they can also cause blood and protein loss from the gut, too. The loss of blood and/or protein from the gut can lead to lethargy, weakness, pale mucus membranes, fluid accumulation within the abdomen, and a host of other problems. Thankfully, most of the common monthly heartworm preventatives also help to protect against many of the common canine intestinal worms.
Another common protozoal parasite of the canine gut, the Coccidia organisms can cause abdominal pain and diarrhea in infected dogs. In many dogs, infection with the Coccidia organisms is either mild or doesn’t show any signs at all. However, in young puppies and older dogs who may have a weakened immune system, either from certain types of cancer or from being on immune-suppressive medications, like steroids, cyclosporine, or chemotherapy, a coccidial infection can cause more serious diarrhea and disease. There is no vaccine to help protect dogs from Coccidia.
E. coli and Salmonella
Both E. coli and Salmonella can cause disease and sickness in dogs — typically vomiting and diarrhea but, if the bacteria gain access to the bloodstream, an affected dog could develop endotoxemic shock (weakness, rapid breathing and pulse rates, pale mucus membranes, collapse, low blood pressure), which is fatal without treatment (and sometimes even with!). Both types of bacteria can survive for extended periods of time in water. The degree and severity of illness caused depends on the age, immune status, and multiple other factors of the dogs infected. But that’s not the only problem; both of these types of bacteria can also cause disease in people who come into contact with them and dogs that become infected can act as an infection source for their people when they “shed” the bacteria. Dogs fed a raw diet are often the biggest concern when it comes to shedding pathogenic bacteria, especially Salmonella, which can infect other dogs and even people. There are no vaccines to help protect dogs against E. coli or Salmonella.
Parvo and Canine Influenza Virus
Note that while the viruses that cause “Parvo” (Parvovirus) and “Dog Flu” (Canine Influenza Virus) can very easily be spread and “caught” from water bowls, it’s more from the dry parts of the water bowls, as water can have a diluting and inhibitory effect on the spread of these viruses. So while both of these viruses are highly (HIGHLY!) contagious amongst dogs, drinking water contaminated by them isn’t one of the main methods through which they’re spread, and so aren’t really discussed here. But if you’ve got and love dogs, you should definitely learn more about both “Parvo” and “Dog Flu.” Thankfully there are safe and effective vaccines to help protect dogs from "Parvo" and "Dog Flu." Be sure to discuss these vaccinations with your vet and ensure that your dog is up-to-date on their shots.
Are all communal dog bowls a danger?
While all communal or public dog bowls could pose a health risk to your dog, certain factors can thankfully make some bowls safer than others. Here’s what to know and look for should your dog need a quick drink on the go:
How Often (and How) the Bowl is Cleaned
It stands to reason that a bowl that’s cleaned (and ideally disinfected) on a daily basis is going to be safer than one that’s cleaned less often (or even not at all — as likely frequently happens with dog park bowls). However, the material the bowl is made of greatly affects how clean you can get a bowl—see more on that below. Cleaning of bowls can either be accomplished with the dishwasher (so long as the bowls are dishwasher-safe) or by hand washing with warm water and soap. Disinfecting can be accomplished either by a sanitary cycle in the dishwasher, or by soaking for 10 minutes in a 1:50 dilution of bleach water. If using bleach water, always be sure to rinse and then dry thoroughly after!
Material Type of Water Bowl
- Stainless steel bowls are the clear winners in terms of the dog bowl material that’s least likely to harbor germs that’ll make your dog sick. Stainless steel is the easiest to clean and disinfect, and also often the most difficult to scratch or otherwise damage (so long as someone isn’t using steel wool or anything else abrasive to clean the bowl). And this lack of scratches and cracks is good, because bacteria and other "nasties" just love hanging out in them and making dogs sick.
- Glass often comes in second in terms of ease of cleaning and not harboring germs and such, but because glass can be easily chipped or broken and thus cause injury to dogs, it’s not really a common or safe option for communal dog bowls at dog parks or out in front of pet-friendly shops.
- Ceramic bowls, like glass, can be easy to clean, but they’re also prone to chipping and breaking, leading to an injury risk. Also, this 2018 study out of Hartpury University in the UK showed that ceramic bowls actually supported the growth of quite a few different types of bacteria. The study’s authors suggest it might be due to an increased ability of the bacteria to produce and “hide behind” biofilm on the ceramic material.
- And, last but not least is … plastic! Plastic dog bowls are far and away the worst type of bowl in terms of risk for harboring bacteria and other infectious creepy crawlies, especially out in a public environment. One of the main reasons for this is that most plastic bowls are easily scratched or otherwise damaged, leading to defects in the material that provide great places for these microbes to overgrow and even withstand the cleaning process.
The Location of the Bowl
Bowls in dog parks are likely a greater infection risk to your dog that a bowl that’s outside of your favorite pet-friendly shop, just because of the environment and the number of dogs likely to be drinking out of it. (And also because the shop owner is cleaning the bowl more often … hopefully!)
Is it OK for my dog to drink from puddles?
Ah, the ubiquitous puddle! The short answer to whether or not it’s safe or OK for your dog to drink out of a puddle is basically that the same infectious precautions discussed for the communal bowls above also apply to puddle drinking. But that’s not the whole story, of course.
Depending on where they’re at, puddles could also add poisoning safety risks. This is especially true of puddles in driveways and on streets, as these puddles could easily contain automotive chemicals (e.g., antifreeze, gasoline, etc.) in them. Antifreeze in particular is highly (HIGHLY!) toxic to animals! Salt-based ice melters can also contaminate puddles and cause a serious toxicity or digestive upset risk to dogs that drink from those puddles.
What’s the best way to give my dog water when out and about?
The best way to protect your dog from the communal dog bowl (and puddle) hazards discussed here is to carry a good, collapsible dog water bowl or hand-held dog water system with you on all of your walks or hikes with your pup. Even if you’re not also carrying a water bottle for your dog, you can usually stop in any of the local restaurants and ask for a cup of water that you can then empty into the collapsible bowl for your dog.
Here are some of our Preventive Vet favorite “on-the-go” dog watering options:
This collapsible dog bowl by Bonza is easy to attach to your dog's leash, your belt or bag with the included carabiner, plus you can use it for both a food and a water bowl so it's great for travel. 100% BPA-free and dishwasher-safe! It's available in Large and X-Large size.
A dog water bottle with a special lid that doubles as the bowl is a perfect all-in-one portable watering option for small to medium dogs. Simply unlock the seal and tilt the bottle to fill the lid with water. Any unused water can be tossed or tilted back into the bottle for later. It's easy to use one-handed, and the removable lid can be used on larger water bottles.Looking for a dog water bottle that's a bit more sturdy? This Tuff Pupper PupFlask is made from stainless steel and features a silicone lid that flips down when not in use and provides a large drinking trough when open. The bottle holds 24 oz. of water, so this is perfect for larger dogs or when you're headed out for a long walk or hike.