Water. Do you even give it a second thought as you fill your pet’s bowl with it? You should. For all of us – humans, cats, dogs – water is what we’re made of. Depending on age and species, some 60 to 80 percent of the body is water.
The elixir of life is a vital nutrient that helps lubricate joints, transport nutrients through the bloodstream, regulate body temperature through respiration, flush waste materials out of the body by way of urine, cushion the brain and spinal cord and more. For all these reasons, it’s important to be sure that your dog or cat is getting enough.
How Low Can You Go?
When the body’s water content falls to drought levels, none of us – pets or people – can function properly. The body draws water out of cells in an attempt to satisfy its thirst and can become low on electrolytes, such as sodium, chloride and potassium, which affect muscle function and other processes. Excessive loss of water, beyond what water the body takes in, is what we refer to as dehydration.
Pets lose water for normal reasons: breathing, panting, peeing, pooping and evaporation through the paws and other parts of the body. They replenish it through eating and drinking. But just like humans, when they lose more water than they take in, they become dehydrated.
Dehydration is a common problem in pets. In fact, many cats are thought to exist in a state of chronic dehydration, because they don’t take in enough water. Two simple ways to increase your cat’s water intake are to have him drink from a fountain (many cats prefer moving water to still) and feed him canned cat food, which has a higher water content than dry food.
Dogs and cats can become dehydrated in a number of ways. Sometimes they aren’t eating or drinking enough to take in appropriate amounts. In a frustrating cycle, dehydration itself can cause appetite loss, so making sure a sick pet gets enough water is essential to helping him eat more. Dehydration can also result from vomiting and diarrhea or fever. Pets who become overheated lose water, too.
Some pets are more prone to dehydration than others. These include very young or small pets, such as puppies and kittens, as well as Toy breed dogs like Chihuahuas, Pomeranians and Yorkshire Terriers. Also at risk are older cats and dogs, pets who are nursing litters, and dogs or cats with diabetes, kidney disease and some types of cancer.
Signs of Dehydration
You’ve probably been dehydrated before. You’ve felt draggy, irritable, headachy – sound familiar? For pets, the signs of dehydration are similar, but they can’t tell us about it. Here’s what to look for that may signal the early stages of dehydration:
- Your pet is tired or moving more slowly than normal.
- He’s lost his appetite.
- He’s panting (a sign in dogs).
- His eyes appear sunken and dry.
- His gums and nose are dry.
If a pet’s need for water isn’t met, the skin may become less elastic. Have you ever pinched the skin on the back of your hand to see how quickly it springs back into place? In humans, that’s an easy test for dehydration. You can do the same with your pet. With your thumb and forefinger, lift a small amount of skin on your dog or cat’s back. If the skin is low on moisture, it will fall back into place slowly instead of immediately snapping back.
Press your finger against the gums, then remove it. In a well-hydrated pet, the gums will look white and then return immediately to their normal pink color. If it takes longer for the gums to regain color, the pet may be dehydrated.
Dogs or cats who are severely dehydrated may have a weak rear end or wobbly walk. All of these signs mean your pet needs a trip to the veterinarian to determine what’s causing the dehydration and the best ways to get his fluid levels back to normal. When pets become dangerously dehydrated or aren’t capable of drinking enough on their own, they typically need to have an IV put in to drive lifesaving fluids. Other times, giving fluids subcutaneously is enough.