Lesson 672 – Chicken Waterers and Rust

When we had that recent discussion about providing water to chickens in the winter, I was asked a question from a friend whose galvanized steel waterer had become discolored and rusty over the summer.

rusty nailCould she still use it? She wondered.

I knew that her chicks were all new this year and was surprised to hear that her equipment was showing so much wear after one season. As it turns out, she regularly adds Apple Cider Vinegar to the chickens’ water supply.  Acid wears down a surface thus creating “pitting handles” which are ideal for the rusting process. Rust is formed when oxygen comes into sustained contact with iron in a process called oxidation. Oxygen is delivered to the metal from water, either from liquid water or water vapor. And once rust starts, “nooks and crannies” are created, further contact is then made and more rust is created. Once it starts, it’s a tough cycle to break.

My advice was to cut way back on the Apple Cider Vinegar (an acid strong enough that it can take the enamel off your teeth) and to replace any waterer that had rust.

I used to be a clinical microbiologist for a few years after I graduated from college and in responding to her I made a glib remark about “I know what can grow in rust.”

Someone asked me for more details on bacteria and rust, so here you go.

The most obvious bacteria that is associated with rust is, of course, Tetanus. We all pretty much know about that one and we’ve all probably had a vaccination against it. Tetanus is the one where when the bacteria enters your body a potent toxin is released that causes your muscles to painfully seize and spasm for up to weeks at a time (lockjaw is one example.) It’s a nasty infection which can kill you, and if it doesn’t, it can take months from which to recover.

Surprisingly though, Tetanus does not grow on rust. It is an anaerobic bacteria (it grows without oxygen) which means you are likely to find it in soil samples or places where there is not a lot of oxygen (which is why you’re more likely to find it in deep in soil as opposed to on the surface.) Rusty objects which are often found in places like deep soil where water can seep down to provide the necessary oxygen for the rusting process creating a nice platform onto which the Tetanus bacteria can then attach. Think of Tetanus as a sort of soil barnacle.

That’s one very clever bacteria. It’s figured out an efficient way to elude and survive.  It lives on a rusty object, people cut themselves on that object, and the bacteria then gets transferred to a blood supply where it enjoys a very nice meal.

That’s why when you get a deep cut from anything metallic (a nail, a soda can pop-top, a galvanized steel chicken waterer) your Doctor will ask you when the last time you had a tetanus shot was. If you can’t remember he will usually give you a booster in the name of “better safe than sorry.”

So do I think my friend’s waterer has Tetanus in it? Not at all, HOWEVER, by providing an environment of water with a significantly altered PH (altered enough to discolor and rust steel) and with existing areas of rust onto which pathogens can cling, you are creating a breeding ground for some potentially serious bacteria and clever parasites to come on in and set up shop.

Very little (next to nothing) grows in pure water. There is no food source in pure water and most organisms will die. Not only is Apple cider vinegar an acid (which raises the PH killing *some* bacteria but allowing others to fourish) but it is also a food (it is, after all made from APPLES) from which some of the more resilient bacteria can survive.

Think about it, chickens are always scratching in the dirt. When they take a sip of water, the dirt (along with pathogens and parasites) gets transferred from their beaks to the water. Some of those nasty bugs will immediately die in the hostile acidic environment but some (usually the more virulent ones) are likely to live on.

What’s a chicken owner to do? Microbiology is a science that is on-going. We are discovering new pathogens on a regular basis. How do we defend ourselves from this microscopic attack?

We do it by using common sense.

  • If you are going to use Apple Cider Vinegar, then monitor the usage. You don’t need a lot (in fact, we don’t even use any in our water, we found that we really didn’t need to use anything and in the winter, the temps keep most things from growing anyway.)
  • Clean out your waterer on a regular basis. Use a good soap and hot water and scrub all areas exposed to water.
  • For goodness sake, replace any equipment that is faulty or rusty. While your birds may not come down with a bacterial infection from a rusty waterer, the mere fact that they *could* should be enough to make you take action.


Filed under All things chickens, Backyard Chickens, chicken care

8 responses to “Lesson 672 – Chicken Waterers and Rust

  1. Interesting read. Lots of food for thought. Makes me glad that I use a stainless dish for my apple cider water and not my chicken fountains. I know apple cider is a wive’s tale for preventing worms, but so far that and good hygiene have worked for me.

  2. Lee

    Replaced it that day. Also went with a smaller container. It’s one thing to haul a 5 gallon container 20 feet to the hose, it’s a whole other can of icicles come winter 🙂 Is there anything we can do to save the 5 gallon so it could be used again come summer or is it a lost cause?

  3. Dawn Kopczynski

    Gee I thought I was the only one to do this. Nice to know I am not alone.

  4. Luke

    Do you think painting a rusty metal watering can or using rustoleum to seal in the rust would work? Or would there be harmful residual chemicals getting into the chicken’s water from the paint?


    • Wendy Thomas

      No I wouldn’t repaint any waterer for any animal. Water (even plain water) can leach out chemicals over time.

      And if you’re one of those who uses Apple Cider Vinegar in your water, you are simply fixing to feed your chickens a chemical bath.

      Best to buy a new one and give your chickens a shot at fresh clean water.


      On Tue, Sep 30, 2014 at 9:42 AM, Lessons Learned from the Flock wrote:


      • Ken

        I am sick and tired of double walled water founts lasting only a couple of years. Does any body know of a Stainless Steel one. To keep cost down it could be square???

      • Wendy Thomas

        We haven’t had much luck with anything else. Plastic cracks in our cold winters and the metal ones only seem to last 1 to 2 years. We’ve tried nipples but that’s not something you can use in our New Hampshire winters. Instead, we just resign ourselves to the fact that replacing water containers is part of the cost of having chickens.


        On Tue, Dec 1, 2015 at 1:35 PM, Lessons Learned from the Flock wrote:


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