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Dehydration in Dogs and Cats: How Can You Tell If Your Pet is Getting Enough Water?

By Paula Fitzsimmons for

Dehydration in dogs and cats can lead to serious health issues, and in extreme cases, it can be fatal. So how do you know if your pet is drinking enough water, especially during summer months or in warmer climates? Learn how to spot the signs of dehydration in dogs and cats and how to encourage your furred family member to drink more water.

What Are the Signs of Dehydration in Dogs and Cats?  

“If your pet has been vomiting or has had diarrhea, or has been romping and running outside, and they seem particularly sluggish later, dehydration might be the reason,” says Dr. John Gicking, DVM, DACVECC, with BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Tampa, Florida. Other symptoms of dehydration in dogs and cats include dry and sticky gums, sunken eyes, loss of skin elasticity and weakness.

One way to determine if you have a dehydrated dog or cat is to lift the loose skin on the back of his neck, says Dr. Liz Stelow, board-certified veterinary behaviorist and chief of service of clinical behavior service at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at University of California, Davis. “If the skin quickly drops back down flat, the pet is not likely dehydrated. If the skin stays ‘tented,’ he likely is. This occurs because the space under the skin becomes tackier when there is decreased hydration present in the body.”

If you suspect your cat or dog is dehydrated, contact your vet for proper assessment and treatment. “The course of treatment to rehydrate the pet is generally intravenous fluids to get blood volume in the body back to normal as rapidly and as safely as possible. In some milder cases, fluid placed in a pocket under the skin may be sufficient to treat the pet,” says Dr. Emi Saito, a veterinarian with Banfield Pet Hospital in Vancouver, Washington and senior manager of Veterinary Research Programs at Banfield.

What Causes Dehydration in Cats and Dogs?

Seasonal and geographic differences definitely play a role in dehydration in dogs and cats. “Summer causes more water loss through sweating and panting, therefore placing more demand on water consumption,” says Dr. Stelow.  

Where you live also factors in. “For example, a dog in Colorado in the summer will probably drink more water than in the winter. Similarly, that same dog in Colorado may drink more water on a summer day than a dog (of equal size and activity) in Minnesota in the winter,” says Dr. Saito.

But don’t always assume that those signs of dehydration in your cat or dog are climate-related. “Another potential cause of dehydration is illness, especially one that includes fever, vomiting or diarrhea. Even if the pet is not vomiting or feverish, his sluggishness when ill may cause him to make fewer trips to the water bowl or fountain,” says Dr. Stelow.

Many older cats and dogs suffer from arthritis, so walking to the water bowl can be painful, says Dr. Gicking, who is board-certified in veterinary emergency and critical care. “So talk to your veterinarian if it seems like the water bowl is staying full all the time.”

How Much Water Does a Dog or Cat Need?

Each animal has individual water consumption needs, says Dr. Saito. She says, however, that the general recommendation is between ½-1 ounce of water per pound of body weight, or about 1 cup per 10 pounds, per day.

“For the average pet owner, the best thing to remember might be simply that pets who are bigger and eat more need to drink more also,” says Dr. Gicking.

Dogs also tend to drink more water than cats. “Our companion cats are descendent from desert dwellers that developed excellent physiologic strategies for conserving water,” explains Dr. Stelow.

Presentation Is Important

Providing access to an abundance of clean, cool water is critical. “In most cases, your dogs or cats will naturally know when they should drink some water and when they should stop,” says Dr. Gicking.

A recirculating water bowl can help, he adds. A recirculating water bowl, or a pet water fountain, cycles filtered water for a continuous source of fresh water (like the Drinkwell 360 pet fountain or the Pioneer Pet ceramic drinking fountain).

You may have to experiment to find a bowl or water fountain that your companion likes. “Some like bowls while others prefer fountains. We hear stories of cats that will not drink except out of a running faucet. Other pets are not at all picky and will drink out of toilets, gutters or birdbaths as readily as out of bowls,” says Dr. Stelow.

If you have more than one pet, consider providing more than one cat water fountain or dog water fountain in different locations, says Dawn Gilkison, owner of Positive Solutions Dog Training in Portland, Oregon. “They could be competing if you have a single water bowl, and you might not be aware of it. I’ve had three dogs in the household, and one dog actually would guard a water bowl from other dogs. And the simplest thing was to provide more water bowls.”

Consider getting pet water fountains that are designed to accommodate multi-pet households, like the PetSafe Sedona pet fountain that has a tower and a bowl reservoir to drink from. Keep water bowls and fountains away from noisy areas, such as near air conditioners and windows that face traffic—this can deter shy animals from drinking.

Get Creative With Water

Georgette Lombardo, owner of Pawsitive Training ABQ in Albuquerque, New Mexico, recommends offering ice cubes as treats. “When my clients go to the refrigerator to get water for themselves, they’ll pop out a couple ice cubes for their dogs to chew on.” You can also experiment with putting dog treats inside the cubes. “It’s almost like a popsicle for the pups. You can also take a little bit of beef broth or chicken broth and dilute it with water to a ratio of one-to-one or two-to-one.”

For cats, you can dilute a little tuna juice or mix some catnip with water to make tasty ice cubes.

If your dog likes to dunk his nose in his dog bowl, Gilkison recommends letting him bob for treats. “Put a couple of treats (or clean dog ball toys) that your dog likes in the bowl, and every time he goes in for the treat, he’ll have a little water.”

Lombardo mixes water into her dogs’ food to make it more appealing to them. “We live in the southwest where it’s been painfully dry. I actually mix in water with their food. We have a couple of supplements we add to our dog’s meals. One of them is a digestive tract supplement and its primary ingredient is pumpkin.”

Keeping your best friend well-hydrated is essential to his health. If you suspect your dog or cat is dehydrated, contact your vet for appropriate diagnosis and treatment.

By Paula Fitzsimmons

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