How clean is your cat's water fountain?
As a professional pet sitter, I have cleaned some water fountains and dishes over the last decade that were VERY overdue for some attention. It's to the point that I now consider myself an "expert" at taking them apart, giving them a good scrub, and then putting them back together like new.
I feel it important to write an article to educate pet owners about the dos and don'ts of using a water fountain for their cats. They have great benefits, but they also come with added responsibilities and a higher cost. Also, they can get dirty and unhygenic a lot faster than people realize...
What are water fountains for cats, and what are they made of?
Water fountains for cats are relatively a new thing.
They come in different shapes, sizes and prices, and are made of plastic, stainless steel or ceramic - or a combination of these materials. All of them are powered by a small electric pump, whose function is to create movement with the water from the reservoir. Some fountains will also have a charcoal cartridge to temporarily help filter chemicals, hair and other impurities from the water.
Some popular fountain choices are the PetSafe Drinkwell (plastic), the Pioneer Pet Raindrop (stainless steel), the PetSafe Drinkwell Pagoda (ceramic) and the Catit Flower and Pixi, which are made of colorful plastic components.
When picking up a new fountain, pet owners should make sure that they are made from BPA-free plastic and that they are easy to clean and dissassemble. Special care should be taken to protect hardwood floors from leaks, and to make sure the pump wire doesn't represent a strangling or chewing hazard to curious cats. Having the fountain not too far from a water source (like the kitchen tap) is also a good idea.
What is their purpose?
It's very simple: fountains help increase water consumption for your pets.
We hear it from veterinarians and cat experts all the time - indoor cats, who are mostly fed on dry food, don't drink enough water. There are many reasons that can explain this phenomenon. In general, cats will prefer "running" water that mimics a gentle stream of fresh and clean water. Moving and bubbling water will also have a better taste than stale, stagnant water from a water bowl. Kitties may also be hesitant to drink from a dish due to not being able to really see the water, and may experience whisker-stress when doing so.
Veterinarians will usually recommend water fountains for cats who are dehydrated and suffering (or at risk of) diabetes, kidney and/or urinary track diseases, including stones. However, you do not have to wait for these health issues to manifest before encouraging your kitties to drink more.
What can happen when water fountains are not cleaned regularly?
I believe that water fountains create a false sense of security in pet owners, in the sense that the reservoir is usually big enough to provide water for several days; and as such, it doesn't need as much maintenance as a regular dish. It's easy to pour a cup of fresh tap water when the level is low, and wait a few more days for the next cleaning. Sometimes, these extra days turn into weeks.
If you are guilty of perhaps delaying the cleaning of your cats' water fountain, you are not alone. According to a study by PetCo in 2017, more than one out of five pet owners wait more than a month before cleaning their animals' water and food dishes.
When your cat drinks from the fountain, germs that live in your cat's mouth are transfered into the water. Letfover food, dirt, hair, dust and other airborne bacteria like Serratia marcescens (pink slime), combined with the saliva create an environment for harmful bateria to thrive and flourish. Furthermore, bacteria can exponentially grow inside the pump, an old filter, or on uneven surfaces caused by scratches and hard water deposits (like limescale), making the bacteria bloom not always obvious to the human eye.
We have also observed algae growth in water fountains and dishes.
The problem with bacteria growth in a water fountain or water dish, is that it can lead to serious health issues. The biofilm (or slimy coat) has been linked to serious peridontal and gum diseases, which can ultimately cause life-threatening heart, liver and kidney problems. Dirty water fountains and dishes can also be linked to vomiting and diarrhea.
Bacteria and algae growth will also alter the taste of the water, making it unappealing for cats to drink. They may even stop using the fountain altogether.
How should I keep my water fountain clean and risk-free for my cats then?
We usually recommend the water from a fountain be refreshed at least every other day for households with one cat, and every day for families with more cats or dogs. It really doesn't take long for water and fountains to turn yucky when multiple pets are using them. Dog owners especially know that they can slobber more than the average cat, compounding the problem.
In terms of frequency, here are our recommendations to keep your fountain clean:
Every week - A fountain should be thoroughly washed at least once a week with hot water and soap. Prior to that, the filter should be removed, rinsed, and inspected before being put back. It's a good idea to use a non-abrasive cloth or sponge to wipe the fountain parts, and a small brush for the hard to reach corners. It may be necessary to open the pump (by removing the top part) to remove any gunk and pet hair from the impeller (the curved, moving part that actually pushes the water through the pump). Make sure there is no soap residue in the water before allowing your cats to drink again.
Every month - Limescale and hard water deposits should be cleaned frequently. It is actually very easy to do with regular white vinegar. After removing the filter, prepare a solution with a ratio from 1:3 up to 1:1 of vinegar to water, and let the fountain run with the vinegar mix for at least 30 minutes (out of reach of your cats). Wash and rinse as described above. Change the filter for a new one, or as per recommendations by the manufacturer.
Every Other Month (or if you see any of the signs below) - This is an important step to prevent, and treat, bacteria that may have found safe harbor inside the fountain. After removing the filter, prepare a solution of approximatively 2 spoons of bleach with one gallon of water (or pour a few drops of bleach in your fountain directly) and let it run for at least 30 minutes (out of reach of your cats and children). Wash and rinse every part thoroughly and let everything dry before reassembling the fountain again. Your fountain should look like new!
Signs that your fountain needs to be clean right away:
- You can feel a slimy coat, aka biofilm (the combination of bacteria and organic material) by rubbing your fingers on the inside, that will not completely go away with soap and water.
- The pump is making an unusual grinding noise.
- There are gnats or flies flying around the fountain, or dead in the water.
- Your cat dropped their toys (even cleaner ones!) in the water.
- There's a reddish residue, or green algae inside the fountain.
As you can see, there are a lot of benefits in using water fountains for kitties, but they come with added responsibility. It is undeniable that a consistent cleaning regimen is necessary to ensure that clean water is always available for your cats.
Paskapoo Pet Services is comfortable with the cleaning steps as described above, and we always make sure that our clients' fountains are dispensing clean and fresh water!