It’s an issue that’s all too common in the summer months for dogs: you’re spending a carefree afternoon at the dog park or the beach when you notice that your canine friend is suddenly panting a little too much or becoming lethargic … and inevitably getting dehydrated. But with most cats spending the lazy days of summer indoors (and hopefully in air conditioning!), is dehydration an issue that cat parents really need to worry about?
According to veterinarians, the answer is yes. While cats may not be as likely to suffer the symptoms of dehydration, it is definitely something that can affect our feline friends.
How Cats Get Dehydrated
“Cats are always going to inherently do better with the heat because they’re desert creatures — but that doesn’t mean they’re not impacted by humidity,” explains Dr. Brian J. Bourquin, veterinarian and owner of Boston Veterinary Clinic. And they don’t have to be frolicking outdoors like dogs in order to be negatively impacted by the weather. If you’re sweating indoors on a hot summer day, keep in mind that your cat may be suffering, too.
“When it comes to minding their physical needs, cats tend to be a little more sensible … whereas dogs will often keeping running around and playing to their detriment,” adds Dr. Gary Richter, veterinarian and author of The Ultimate Pet Health Guide. “However, your cat can certainly become dehydrated when, for one reason or another, [she doesn’t] have access to water — maybe because [she’s] been outside all afternoon with no access to a water source, or maybe somebody forgot to fill the water bowl.”
What Cats Are Most at Risk for Dehydration?
Much like with humans, dehydration is something that may be a greater danger in the young or old. Both kittens and geriatric cats are naturally going to have a harder time regulating their body temperature, and thus are more at risk for heat-related issues like dehydration.
“Cats have a lower daily fluid requirement than dogs by weight and are less prone to environmental causes of dehydration, like excessive exercise or heat exhaustion, than dogs,” explains Dr. Jessica Weeks, emergency and critical care resident for BluePearl Veterinary Partners.
However, she notes that in addition to their age, there are some other underlying diseases that can predispose cats to dehydration, including chronic renal disease, diabetes, vomiting, diarrhea, depressed mentation, infection, inflammation, toxin ingestion or any other illness that decreases appetite and thirst. “In normal, healthy cats with free access to water, dehydration is uncommon. But when pets are denied access to clean, fresh water, or have an underlying disease, dehydration can occur rapidly and can be severe,” she adds.
How to Tell if Your Cat is Dehydrated
Cats will commonly stop eating before they stop drinking, so cats that aren’t eating well should always be evaluated by a veterinarian, Dr. Weeks warns. Some other symptoms that your cat may be dehydrated include lethargy, sunken eyes, dry gums, prolonged tenting of the skin, weight loss or decreased volume of urination.
If you suspect that your cat is dehydrated, one quick way to tell is by (carefully!) checking her gums. Dr. Bourquin advises gently pressing on your cat’s gums; you’re looking to feel if the texture is tacky or sticky, which could indicate the early stages of dehydration.
Another way to tell is by tenting your cat’s skin — carefully pinch about an inch of skin above your cat's shoulders and pull up gently. Your cat’s skin should immediately snap back into place once released. But if it stays up in the air (resembling a tent), it’s a sign of more severe dehydration and your kitty needs veterinary attention ASAP, he notes.
Diagnosing and Treating Dehydration in Cats
Dr. Weeks explains that a physical examination, blood work and analysis of the urine will aid your veterinarian in diagnosing if dehydration is present, how severe it is, and which treatments are recommended. Depending on the severity of the issue, your veterinarian may use an IV to provide your cat with fluids, and they may want to monitor your cat’s kidney function in more severe cases. “Treating the underlying cause of dehydration is paramount, as well as replacing the appropriate type of fluids that are needed,” she adds. “Dehydration can be fatal if untreated, and assessment by your veterinarian is the best way to ensure your cat stays healthy and hydrated.”
Keeping Your Cat Hydrated
Of course, when it comes to dehydration in either cats or dogs, prevention is key. If, like many cats, your feline is finicky about drinking water, there are other (sneakier) ways to ensure they’re staying hydrated — like adding a bit of water to their wet cat food. “You’ll also want to ensure that multiple sources of water are available, in case the water bowl spills, the fountain stops running or another cat is guarding the water source,” Dr. Weeks advises.
Above all, keeping cats (and dogs!) indoors during extremely hot, humid weather is always a good idea to reduce their risk for overheating and dehydration.
“Maybe even more so than horses, you can lead cats to water but you can’t make them drink,” Dr. Richter adds. “If you have a cat that’s particular about everything, figuring out whether she prefers a certain size or shape or color of bowl, or would rather drink water from a recalculating pet fountain, can make all the difference.”
The best thing to do to keep your cat hydrated and comfortable this summer? Pay special attention to your kitty’s water source, even when you’re enjoying a backyard barbecue or packing up for a summer vacation. “A cat becoming dehydrated isn’t something that happens on a regular day … it’s something that happens when relatives bring their dog over and he drinks all of your cat’s water, or when your niece accidentally spills the cat’s water and nobody notices,” Dr. Bourquin says. He also warns cat owners to find a reputable cat sitter when going out of town or on vacation this summer.“You can’t have someone come in once a week to put food and water down for your cat and hope for the best,” he warns. “Cats tend to be quiet in their demands, so you have to be sure not to forget about your cat and their hydration needs in all the excitement this summer.”