The power outages experienced around the country might make animal caretakers wonder, “How did we ever raise livestock in the days before electricity?” Electric lights, hot water heaters, and mechanical ventilation are all items that are taken for granted, except when weather events interrupt their supply of “juice.”

For a great number of operations, electricity is surely essential. Mechanical ventilation systems aren’t just useful to make modern hog barns comfortable for pigs, they’re essential in regulating gases and temperatures that, allowed to rise, could become a life-or-death proposition for the animal. Generators are standard equipment in those operations as well, but aren’t always fail-safe and need to be continually monitored.

Perhaps the most common use for electricity on farms and ranches during the winter months is for supplying water to animals. Automatic waterers allow for a consistent, frost-free supply of water to cattle, horses, pigs, and sheep regardless of weather. When they fail, oftentimes there are no other sources for animals to turn to for water, the most important nutrient. Exceptions are the highly-insulated “Energy-free” waterers that use ground temperature of the incoming water to keep the water thawed.

An issue with hogs and water outages is that of “salt poisoning.” This is a shift in metabolism due to inadequate water intake. An excessive concentration of sodium builds up in their body fluids, resulting in central nervous system signs such as muscle spasms, seizures, coma and death. The tricky thing is that these signs become worse when the water supply is turned back on and the pigs take in a lot of water rapidly. Following a water outage, water should be supplied gradually back to the group of pigs as they rehydrate themselves. All animals are susceptible to salt poisoning but pigs are the most sensitive.

Other, less obvious animal health issues can arise from power outages. Vaccines and other medications stored in refrigerators should be treated like food items when the power goes out: keep the refrigerator door shut unless absolutely necessary. Medications that have been subject to prolonged warmer temperatures should probably be discarded, depending upon their storage requirements. Likewise, medications that have frozen should also be discarded – many animal vaccines develop toxic compounds once they’re frozen and thawed.

Power outages bring with them a different set of circumstances to every animal operation. Questions about animal care and animal health products in the midst of electricity loss should be directed to your veterinarian or a livestock specialist.