Making sure water is always available is one thing, but you’ll also want to know how to tell whether your cat is dehydrated.

By Austin Cannon
April 23, 2021
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Cats are famous for being sneaky and sly, and that certainly applies to whether they've been drinking enough water.

In fact some of the clients of Michelle Moyal, DVM, have told her they've never seen their cats drink water, so, yeah, it can also be pretty hard to tell whether you're caring for a dehydrated cat. 

"What's tough is cats are very good at hiding signs of illness until they really don't feel so well," Moyal says.   

Thankfully, there are a few things you can do to tell if your cat is needing fluids and Moyal has a couple ideas on how to get them drinking again. Plus, your veterinarian should be able to answer your dehydration questions even more fully. They know your cat best, after all. 

What Causes Dehydration in Cats?

To put it simply, dehydration in cats occurs when they aren't taking in enough fluids, namely water. There can be several reasons your get isn't getting enough fluids, but here are some typical causes from Moyal, who's also a lecturer in primary care surgery at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine: 

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Eating less canned, wet food, which is actually an excellent source of water for cats
  • Not having access to water inside—such as being locked in a dry room
  • Getting lost outside and being unable to find water
  • Other underlying health conditions—kidney disease and crystals in the urine, for example 

Those are broad examples, so your best bet is to keep a close eye on your cat—even though we're sure you already do—and make sure they drink water and eat enough wet food. 

Cat Dehydration Symptoms

These might not be things you can identify right off the bat, unless it's vomiting and diarrhea. Then you're already aware that your cat is losing plenty of fluids repeatedly.

Because you're looking for subtle signs, you'll need to scoop your kitty up for an at-home physical examination, starting with the gums. If they're sticky or dry, your cat is likely dehydrated.

"They should be nice and slippery, really moist," Moyal says. 

They should also be pink in color. A different color—gray or yellow perhaps—doesn't mean your cat is dehydrated, but it could indicate other serious problems. Yellow gums, for example, could mean your cat has jaundice, Moyal says. 

Another way to see if your cat is dehydrated is to conduct a skin turgor test to examine the elasticity of your cat's skin. To do that, you gently gather your cat's skin behind the neck and between the shoulders and lift it up. If it falls back down quickly, your cat is probably OK. If it stays lifted up and slowly returns to your cat's back, your buddy might be dehydrated. 

However, that might not be true for all cats. Moyal says some leaner and older cats will naturally have less-elastic skin.

A more serious sign of dehydration can be dull corneas or sunken eyes. Cats left without water for too long can, eventually, die just like us humans.

"That is severe. I never want it to get to that point before a patient comes in," Moyal says. "The sooner we can intervene the more of a chance we can have to help them."

Cream calico cat drinks water out of metal bowl
Credit: Friederike Von Gilsa / EyeEm / Getty

Cat Dehydration Treatment

First thing's first. If you detect or even suspect your cat is dehydrated, your initial task is to visit your veterinarian, who has a wider array of hydration solutions than you do, including intravenous methods.

"If you see any signs of your kitty not feeling well, take them to where they can get a really good assessment of dehydration," Moyal says. 

Home Remedies You Can Try

If for whatever reason you can't get to the vet right away, there are some ways you can get your cat some fluids at home. Moyal suggested starting with the water out of a can of tuna. It's not a large amount, and the fishy smell might entice your cat.

You can also offer the cat small amounts of water and food, and even add more water than usual to wet food, almost making it a puree that can help your cat get some fluids.

"My goal is to be very sneaky," Moyal says. 

But here's the BUT: If your cat is dehydrated because she's vomiting or having diarrhea, let her rest for a few hours before offering her food and water. Otherwise, you're gonna see that food and water again real soon on your carpet or in the litter box.

Also, it's probably best to avoid giving your cat cures for human dehydration like Pedialyte or sports drinks like Gatorade. Moyal says they can be too sugary and have too much sodium, respectively. Water is your best bet.

Preventing Dehydration in Cats

The obvious answer is to make sure your cat always has access to clean, fresh water, but don't just leave a bowl out and call it good. Find out what your cat likes. Some cats do fine with a bowl. Others might want the water coming out of a fountain. One of Moyals cats waits by her sink for her to turn on the faucet—the best way to drink the freshest water. 

You can also switch to wet food, but Moyal warns: Your cat is likely particular about her food, so who knows if she'll enjoy the change.

Still have questions? Talk with your vet. They'll know what to do.