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Tips to avoid dehydration in dogs and cats

Dehydration in dogs and cats is a potentially fatal issue. As an owner, it’s important to identify the signs of dehydration so you can take urgent action. Prevention is always better than the cure though and knowing how to ensure your dog or cat is well hydrated is the key to keeping them safe, especially during the summer months.

Water has been called the ‘elixir of life’ and with good reason. It is essential for maintaining many vital bodily functions – regulating body temperature through respiration, removing waste materials, lubricating joints, delivering oxygen and nutrients to cells via the bloodstream, helping digestion, maintaining the correct balance of electrolytes, cushioning the brain and spinal cord and more.

Why dehydration is dangerous

Hydration status refers to the amount of water in the body, and this is determined by how much is taken in through drinking and eating and how much is lost through waste materials, sweating, panting and exhaling. Dehydration refers to an excessive loss of water due to decreased water intake and/or increased water loss, leading to a reduction in total body water.

Unfortunately, dehydration can be a common problem in pets. The causes of dehydration in dogs and cats can include any reason that prevents them from drinking, such as lack of access to water, illness reducing their desire to drink, and excessive loss of water.

Excessive loss of fluid can occur with trauma (due to blood/fluid loss), acute illness involving fever, vomiting or diarrhoea, or overheating in hot weather or during heavy exercise. Very young, small or older pets, those with underlying health problems (such as diabetes, kidney disease, hyperthyroidism and some cancers) and nursing mothers can become dehydrated easily.

Dehydration is a serious issue which, if untreated, can lead to health problems such as poor circulation, dysfunction in multiple organs, inability to regulate body temperature, cardiac arrhythmias and neurological problems. Cats are particularly prone to dehydration and those with chronic subclinical dehydration – caused when the animal isn’t drinking the recommended amount of water each day – are at risk of kidney disease.

How to tell if your pet is dehydrated

So how can you prevent this? Firstly, you can assess your pet’s hydration status at home by learning techniques that veterinarians routinely use, so ask your veterinarian to demonstrate.

One technique, called the ‘skin turgor test’, is to gently pinch and lift the skin between your dog or cat’s shoulder blades and then release it – if they are well hydrated, the skin will quickly return to its normal position but in a dehydrated animal, it will remain ‘tented’.

Another is to look at your pet’s gums – they should be shiny and feel moist when you touch them with your finger. In animals who are dehydrated, the gums appear dry and will be sticky to touch.

There are also certain signs to look out for that could indicate your dog or cat is dehydrated, which include:

  • Loss of energy
  • Weakness
  • Reduced appetite or refusal to eat
  • Dry, sticky gums
  • Panting
  • Loss of skin elasticity
  • Sunken eyes
  • Depression

If your pet shows any of these signs you will need to seek veterinary assessment and treatment urgently. Your veterinarian may rehydrate your pet with intravenous fluids or, in milder cases, fluids administered subcutaneously (into the tissue under the skin).

How much water is enough?

Many owners ask how much water their dog or cat should drink each day. This depends on many factors, including the content of their diet (wet or dry), weather conditions, activity levels and stage of life.

Your veterinarian can advise you about how much your pet should be drinking based on their individual circumstances. They may ask you to monitor this by measuring the difference between the water you have left out and the amount remaining in your pet’s bowls daily.

The most important strategy is to ensure your dog or cat is drinking as much as they need, so try the following tips for keeping dogs and cats hydrated:

  • Place multiple bowls of fresh water in different locations in the house.
  • Change the water daily to keep it fresh and clean and clean the bowls on a regular basis.
  • Ensure there is at least one water bowl for each pet in the house and one extra to avoid competition.
  • Keep water bowls in places which are accessible to pets with arthritis or other mobility problems (i.e. not too far away and with no stairs or obstacles to navigate to get to the water).
  • Experiment with water fountains or other sources of moving water, as this encourages many cats to drink more and may provide mental stimulation.
  • Offer ice cubes or pet popsicles with treats frozen inside.
  • Add water to your cat’s food, provide wet food or flavour their drinking water with juice from canned tuna or low sodium chicken broth.
  • While cats don’t like water next to their food bowl, you could place your cat’s water bowl nearby to encourage them to drink while eating.
  • Experiment with different types of water bowls for cats (some don’t like plastic and many prefer wide mouthed bowls so their whiskers do not touch the sides).
  • Talk to your veterinarian about hydration supplements for cats, such as nutrient-enriched water, which has been shown to increase total water intake beyond the increase achieved by switching to a wet food diet and to maintain a higher level of water intake.

If your cat has kidney disease, keep up regular checks by your veterinarian, who will routinely assess their hydration status.

Protecting your pets from heatstroke

Pets must also be protected from heatstroke. Also referred to as heat stress, this is when pets overheat to the point they can no longer cool themselves down by normal means and this can result in tissue injury and even death.

To prevent heatstroke, it’s crucial that your pet is never left in a hot, unventilated space, always has access to fresh drinking water and shade, and is not exercised in hot or humid conditions. A common cause of heatstroke is leaving pets in cars, which is dangerous even on mild days (even if the windows are down or the car is in the shade) because of how quickly the temperature can rise due to heat absorption by metal and glass.

Brachycephalic/flat-faced breeds (both dogs and cats) are especially susceptible to heatstroke.

The signs of heatstroke include agitation, panting, drooling, vomiting, weakness, difficulty breathing, neurological symptoms (such as seizures and tremors) and collapse. This is an emergency situation that requires first aid (applying cool water) and urgent veterinary attention.

Taking care of our fur babies

Having a pet dog or cat is a life-changing experience, as they bring so much love and joy to our lives. Being forewarned about any risks to their health, knowing how to prevent these and when to seek veterinary treatment is the key to keeping them safe and well.

With pet insurance, your veterinary bills for approved claims will be much lower, giving you the peace of mind of knowing you can seek veterinary care as soon as possible, which is essential for any unexpected illness or injury.

If you’re with RSPCA Pet Insurance, you can claim on the spot and pay the GapOnlyTM^ on eligible vet bills, and a portion of first year premiums goes to support the great work of the RSPCA.

Image of Dr Rosemary Elliot

Dr Rosemary Elliot 

Dr Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after having established her career as a clinical psychologist, and has qualifications of BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), MPsych (Clin), BA (Hons) as well as previously establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics, with a particular interest in animal sentience and the human-animal bond. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Rosemary combines her psychology background and veterinary skills to contribute to and promote animal welfare, and regularly contributes quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance's Pet Care blog.

^At participating vets only. To find your closest vet visit GapOnly

RSPCA Pet Insurance is issued by The Hollard Insurance Company Pty Ltd ABN 78 090 584 473, AFSL 241436, is distributed and promoted by Greenstone Financial Services Pty Ltd (GFS) ABN 53 128 692 884, AFSL 343079 and by its Authorised Representative (AR) RSPCA Australia ABN 99 668 654 249, AR 296287 and is arranged and administered through PetSure (Australia) Pty Ltd ABN 95 075 949 923, AFSL 420183. Any advice provided is general only and does not take into account your individual objectives, financial situation or needs. Please consider the Product Disclosure Statement (PDS) to ensure this product meets your needs before purchasing. PDS and Target Market Determination available at