A Yorkshire Terrier gets a sip of water on a hot day.

Is Your Dog Dehydrated?

The dog days of summer can be rough on dogs. Our four-legged friends are just as susceptible to dehydration and heat exhaustion as we are. Even worse, they can’t do much about it on their own. It’s up to vigilant dog lovers to take the necessary precautions, recognize the warning signs, and, if necessary, intervene to prevent deadly consequences.

Nutrition isn’t just about food. Like the human body, the canine body can’t function effectively unless it’s hydrated. Water accounts for nearly 80% of the body and it’s essential to practically 100% of bodily processes. It keeps the digestive system flowing, regulates your dog’s body temperature, helps promote urinary tract health, and much more.

What Is Canine Dehydration?

All healthy dogs (or mammals of any sort) circulate water throughout the day. Urinating, sweating, and even breathing cause your dog to steadily lose water, which they replenish as necessary by eating and drinking. When this intake and outtake is out of balance, a dog may become dangerously dehydrated.

Untreated, dehydration has dire ripple effects throughout the body. Disrupted blood flow causes problems for every organ and the body loses its ability to deliver electrolytes. Without these, muscles and nerves falter and cells lack for necessary nutrients. A similar thing happens when we become dehydrated — hence the wide variety of replenishing, electrolyte-rich sports drinks.

Causes of Dehydration in Dogs

July is National Pet Hydration Month for a reason — hot weather presents increased dehydration risks for people and pets alike. Sweating and excessive panting lead dogs to lose fluids more quickly than usual and heat stroke can make matters even worse. As a dog gets hotter and hotter, its panting and heart rate both quicken and cause it to lose more water. Brachycephalic breeds, like French Bulldogs, and dogs with preexisting conditions are especially vulnerable, but any dog can fall prey.

That’s not to suggest that dehydration is a concern during the summer months alone. Limited fluid intake can impact a dog’s health any time of year. A dog might get dangerously dehydrated from something as simple as lack of access to water.

Illnesses that lead to vomiting, diarrhea, and other fluid loss can cause and rapidly exacerbate dehydration in dogs. Quick action is essential when these symptoms are especially severe, as they can transform a temporary illness into a canine health emergency.

Signs of Dehydration in Dogs

Dogs look cute with their tongues hanging out of their mouths, but when is hot weather behavior a cause for concern? In addition to excessive panting, watch out for these warning signs:

Testing for Dehydration in Dogs

Typically, the best way to determine whether your dog is mildly dehydrated or not is to test their gums. This is according to Dr. Jennifer Monkiewicz, a veterinarian at Saint Francis Veterinary Center’s Wellness Clinic. She advises pet parents to lift their dogs’ lips, touch their gums, and test for a “dry or tacky” quality.

The American Kennel Club (AKC) notes that pet owners can test for dehydration by assessing their dog’s skin elasticity. According to the organization’s chief veterinary officer, Dr. Jerry Klein, pet parents should gently pinch the skin near their dog’s shoulder blade, pull it, let go, and watch as it returns to its original position. A hydrated dog’s skin will snap back into place, while a dehydrated dog’s slowly recedes.

Dr. Klein encourages dog owners to test their dog’s skin elasticity under normal conditions. This will help them make an informed assessment if they need to test it for dehydration in the future. Owners of wrinkly breeds, Klein writes, should take special care to make these observations “because their [dogs’] skin may not be as elastic, even under normal conditions.”

Treating Dehydration in Dogs

Dehydration can go from bad to worse quickly. When dogs are dehydrated, they may lose their appetite and avoid taking in fluids from foods. In especially dire situations, severe diarrhea and vomiting can make dehydration worse too.

Pet owners who suspect mild dehydration should immediately provide their dog with clean water and encourage them to drink. Persistent and severe symptoms could be a sign of electrolyte loss or heat stroke. In these instances, they should contact a veterinarian immediately. A vet may administer fluids through an IV or take other methods to alleviate their symptoms and replenish them quickly.

Dr. Monkiewicz discourages dog owners from attempting to “rehydrate their dog through syringe-feeding” while waiting for veterinary attention. “It will not be possible,” she says, “for the dog to consume an adequate volume.” However well-meaning, the gesture will also increase the dog’s anxiety and could exacerbate the issue.

How Much Water Does Your Dog Need?

As with most health conditions, the best treatment for dehydration is avoiding it altogether. Providing your dog with a consistent supply of clean water and promoting a nutritious lifestyle can avoid the stress and cost of dehydration treatments.

Experts suggest that dogs need an ounce of water for each pound they weigh. Remember, however, that this is just a rule of thumb. High activity, hot weather, and other circumstances could necessitate much more fluid intake throughout the day.

If you suspect that dehydration may be a sign of another underlying health issue, consult with your veterinarian to develop an appropriate course of treatment.