A dehydrated cat is a common clinical finding and can be caused by many problems. Dehydration is the result of either fluid loss or any issue that leads to decreased fluid intake. Dehydration is defined as when the “total body water is less than normal.” Before we look at how to treat and prevent dehydration in cats, we will review the causes.
Causes for a Dehydrated Cat
The body relies on both the intake of fluids and the excretion of fluids. Loss of fluids or decreased fluid intake both lead to dehydration.
Causes of dehydration in cats include:
Reduced Fluid Intake
- Reduced intake – Cats that are ill and not eating or drinking have a reduced intake. This can be caused by many different diseases and is a very common symptom.
- Deprivation of food and water – This can occur when a cat is neglected, looked in a room or garage, or not fed. Unsupervised pets (such as the owner goes on vacation and cat spills its water and is without for days) can lead to severe dehydration problems.
Increased Fluid Losses
- Fluids can be lost through vomiting, diarrhea, blood loss, and urination. Causes of increased fluid losses include:
- Kidney disease – Any disease that affects the kidneys can cause increased urine production. Kidney disease or failure also commonly causes vomiting, diarrhea and decreased appetite (intake), which compounds the dehydration.
- Vomiting – Any disease or problem that causes vomiting leads to fluid losses. Viral or bacterial infections, gastrointestinal foreign body, diabetes mellitus, kidney disease, cancer, liver disease, neurologic disease, and many more systemic problems can cause vomiting.
- Diarrhea – Loose or watery bowel movements cause abnormal fluid losses and can be caused by intestinal parasites, viral or bacterial infections, gastrointestinal foreign body, heatstroke, cancer as well as other systemic problems.
- Fever – Increased body temperature can cause fluid losses.
- Burns or wound drainage – Any disruption in the skin that causes drainage can cause fluid loss. Large wounds can cause severe fluid losses.
- Blood loss – Blood is fluid, and the loss of blood can cause dehydration, shock, anemia and lead to many other life-threatening problems.
Signs of a Dehydrated Cat
The clinical signs of dehydration in cats include lethargy, depression, dry sticky gums, sunken eyes, loss of skin elasticity, and/or increased pulse (heart rate).
How to Tell if Your Cat is Dehydrated
Physical examination findings can help determine if dehydration is present in your cat. A common but inaccurate way to diagnose dehydration is based on skin elasticity. When the skin along the back of the neck is gently lifted, it should immediately return to the normal position. In a dehydrated cat, the skin does not return to normal quickly. The speed of return to a normal position can help determine the severity of the dehydration.
Other clinical signs of dehydration include sticky or dry gums, sunken eyes, and/or lethargy. A more accurate method to determine dehydration is by evaluating blood work for abnormal changes.
What You Can Do for a Dehydrated Cat
The treatment for dehydration in cats will depend on the underlying cause. Treatment for some of the possible causes may include:
- Not eating– If your cat is not eating, it is important to do anything you can to stimulate their appetite. Every cat has different food preferences making it important to offer a variety of flavors and textures to find something appealing to your cat. You may start by offering fresh kibble or your cat’s favorite treats. You can also try feeding canned cat food. Heating up canned food can release food aromas and stimulate hunger. For some cats, fish flavors are especially appealing. Canned tuna, chicken, or chicken baby food are additional options that can be alluring to cats. Ultimately you may need to see your veterinarian to determine the underlying cause for the anorexia.
- Not drinking – If your cat is not drinking, you can try the following:
- Stimulate thirst with fresh clean water.
- Some cats love to drink out of the sink, bathtub, or shower. Consider encouraging this if your cat is dehydrated.
- Offer low sodium chicken, beef broth or tuna juice.
- Some cats love running water and will drink more water from a fountain. There are many commercial cat fountains on the market.
- Mix canned cat food with water to form a gravy.
- Moisten dry food.
- Come cats enjoy ice cubes in the water bowl. You can also make ice cubes out of chicken broth or tuna juice.
- Some cats have various bowl substrate preferences. Offer water in different shapes or types of bowls. Some cats prefer to drink out of pottery and others out of stainless steel. There are also preferences for deep versus shallow water bowls.
- As a last resort, you can squirt a small amount of water in your cat’s mouth with a syringe or baster. This needs to be done gently as you don’t want your cat to aspirate (get water in his lungs).
- Vomiting – Cats that are vomiting can be difficult to treat at home. You can withhold food and water for a few hours then begin offering small amounts of water followed by small quantities of food. Here is a really good article about how you can try to get through this common problem with your cat. Go to: Home Care for the Vomiting Cat. If your cat does not eat, is lethargic, or the vomiting continues, please call your veterinarian.
- Diarrhea – Loose stools are a common symptom in cats and when sustained can cause severe dehydration. It is important to consider the underlying cause and remove it if possible (such as exposure to trash or new treats). Feeding a bland diet can help some cats with diarrhea. Ideally, have your cat evaluated by your veterinarian to help determine and treat the underlying problems.
- Increased urination – If your cat is urinating more frequently, please see your veterinarian. Increased thirst with increased urination can be caused by diabetes or kidney disease.
- Bleeding – The loss of blood is a problem for more reasons than just dehydration. If your cat is bleeding, please see your veterinarian immediately. Learn more with this article: How to Stop Cat Bleeding.
The treatment for dehydration is to supplement the body with fluids. It is often not possible for a sick cat to ingest enough water to adequately correct dehydration. Fluids are typically administered as an injection. The most efficient method of rehydration is through intravenous (IV) fluids. This requires hospitalization as well as an intravenous catheter. Fluid replacement is done slowly to allow the body to compensate and slowly replenish tissues starved of fluid.