Even though cats have a reputation for not liking water, that doesn’t mean that dehydration is normal for them. In fact, dehydration in cats can be very serious and can even require veterinary care if moderate to severe.
As a veterinarian, we love to see your cat, but that doesn’t mean that every case of dehydration in cats needs professional help. In this article, we’re here to help you recognize the signs of dehydration and give you some tips on how to treat mild cases at home.
What are the signs of dehydration in cats?
The early signs of cat dehydration may be difficult to notice, so it’s important to know what’s normal for your kitty so that you can quickly recognize the abnormal. With this in mind, here’s symptoms that might indicate you have a dehydrated cat:
- Not eating
- Sticky or dry gums
- Pale gums
- Sunken eyes
- Nonelastic skin
- Less frequent urination
How to check if your cat is dehydrated
Along with noticing the above signs, there are some quick and easy tests you can perform at home to get an idea of your cat’s hydration status.
Skin tent test
A hydrated kitty’s skin will quickly bounce back when you pinch it and then let go. Dehydration can reduce the elasticity of the skin because it doesn’t have enough water to maintain the elasticity. Test by pinching the skin on the back of your cat’s neck. If it bounces back, they’re probably pretty good to go. It if remains in a tented shape and then slowly returns to normal, this indicates poor skin elasticity and so you probably have a dehydrated cat.
Mucous membrane color and texture
If your cat is willing, gently lift their lip and look and feel their gums. A hydrated kitty will have nice pink and shiny gums that feel slick and slimy when you touch them. When dehydrated, the gums can turn pale and become sticky to the touch. With severe dehydration, the gums may even feel dry. If it feels like your finger sticks to the gums instead of slides off, your kitty is probably dealing with some dehydration.
Capillary refill time (crt)
Capillaries are the tiny blood vessels where the oxygen exchange happens in the tissue. They also help give skin a healthy pink glow. When you press your finger onto your cat’s gums, it’s normal for that skin to turn white because you’re squishing the blood out of those capillaries. However, they will refill in less than two seconds after you remove your finger. In dehydrated cats, they may have a lower blood volume due to the lack of fluids, making that capillary refill time longer than two seconds.
What causes dehydration in cats?
Cats can become dehydrated by a couple of different ways – either they don’t drink enough or they’re losing more fluids than they can take in. Sometimes both.
The most common causes of dehydration in cats include:
- Not enough clean, fresh water available
- Not feeling well enough to drink water
- Excessive heat or exertion
- Excessive urination (diabetes, kidney disease or urinary tract infections)
- Blood loss from trauma
How can I treat dehydration in cats at home?
If your kitty is already in that moderate to severe state of dehydration with dry or pale gums, don’t bother with at-home treatments. They need fluids and they need them fast, so don’t hesitate to call your veterinarian. If they are only mildly dehydrated, so starting to get some stickiness to the gums or mild skin tenting, here are some at-home options to get the fluids flowing.
Chicken broth or tuna juice
Sometimes your cat just needs a little incentive to drink more. You can encourage them by adding a little low sodium chicken broth or tuna juice to their water dish. This will just give it a little flavor kick that may have your kitty posted up at the water bowl to fill their dehydrated body.
Canned wet food
Most kitties aren’t going to turn down an offering of canned wet food, and who could blame them? It’s more fragrant, easier to chew, and tastier. Wet food (the clue is in the name) has more fluid in it than dry food. This means that your kitty will be inadvertently getting more fluid without actually drinking water. Add some water to canned food to make a thickened slurry for even more of a punch.
When a cat is losing fluids from vomiting or diarrhea, they’re not only losing water but electrolytes as well. These compounds are important for all cellular functions. You can try to replace electrolytes, as well as water, by offering a cat-specific electrolyte solution. These often provide a little flavor enhancer for water to encourage drinking all while providing the all-important electrolytes and fluids to rehydrate.
Homemade electrolyte solution
If you want to go the homemade route for an electrolyte solution, you can start by boiling 1 liter of mineral water, turning off the heat and adding 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon baking soda, and 3 tablespoons of honey. Let the mixture reach room temperature and then offer it to your kitty in small amounts. Keep in the refrigerator.
It should go without saying that cats are curious. Sometimes that curiosity can get them to eating or drinking something that is new and different. You may try to “trick” your kitty into drinking by placing ice cubes in their water bowl. They may investigate or even play with the ice cubes, and hopefully take in more water as a side effect. Make some low sodium chicken broth ice cubes for an added bonus.
How does a vet treat dehydration in cats?
Severely dehydrated kitties are going to need veterinary care to prevent organ damage from lack of fluids. Your vet will treat cat dehydration with the same idea as your at-home options, just with a higher powered and quicker approach.
This means fluids which are often administered intravenously so that they get right to the source immediately. IV fluids can take a while to administer so vets will often hospitalize your kitty so that they can keep an eye on them.
Fluids can also be given subcutaneously, or under the skin. This is a slower option than the IV route, but it provides your cat with a fluid source that will be absorbed over the course of a few hours.
While your kitty is being rehydrated, your vet will be working on fixing the reason for the dehydration. This may include blood work or imaging to diagnose the issue and may require medications or special diets to help with vomiting, diarrhea, or to manage chronic illnesses like diabetes or kidney disease.
How can I prevent dehydration in my cat?
Of course, it’s always easier to prevent dehydration than treat it, so try these tips to avoid an issue in the first place:
- Clean water bowls frequently and provide fresh water. Cats can be finicky about the cleanliness of their things, so use a mild soap and water to wash bowls at least weekly and refill with fresh water daily.
- Keep multiple water bowls around your home so that your cat is never very far from a fresh source. This is especially important for multi-cat households because some felids don’t like to share.
- Invest in a cat water fountain like this one. Cats prefer running water and so fountains help keep water fresh and filtered and often attract your kitty to drink more with the pleasing sound.
How much water does my cat need a day?
Cats need to drink or eat about four ounces of water per five pounds of body weight. So, for most average sized, 10-pound kitties, this means their daily water intake should be about 1 cup of water. Keep in mind, they can either drink this much or get some when they eat wet food.