Dehydration in Cats: Symptoms, Risk Factors & Treatments
Cats are not known for having a strong thirst drive. This puts them at risk of dehydration. Since every single cell in a cat’s body is dependent on adequate levels of water for optimum functioning, dehydration also puts these cells and organs at risk of more serious problems. When we talk about dehydration, however, water is not the only thing that’s deficient or in a serious state of imbalance. There can be issues in electrolytes like sodium, potassium, and chloride, too. As such, dehydration is often considered a life-threatening situation that warrants a more definitive treatment plan.
Signs and Symptoms of Feline Dehydration
Since all cells depend on adequate levels of water and electrolytes for optimum functioning, dehydration can present in many different ways. The main issue with identifying dehydration is that the clinical manifestations are not specific to dehydration. Many of these signs and symptoms can mean other things. Here are some of the most important signs and symptoms that should alert you to the possibility of dehydration in your cat.
- Poor Skin Turgor
Normal, healthy cats have good skin turgor. This means that the skin is elastic. It goes right back to its original position when pinched or lifted. To check for the cat’s skin turgor, pinch a fold of skin at the back of its neck. Pull it up to form a “tent”. Release your hold and watch if the skin returns to its original position within 2 seconds. If it does, then your feline pet doesn’t have any issues with hydration. However, if it remains “tented” or takes longer than 2 seconds to return to its normal position, then the cat may have dehydration.
- Prolonged Capillary Refill Time
One of the effects of dehydration is a reduction in plasma or blood volume. This gets reflected in the capillary refill time. If you look at your nails, they appear pink because of the blood underneath the skin. If you press on your nail beds for a few seconds, you will see the area to turn white or pale. The pressure displaces the blood underneath it. When you release the pressure, the blood goes back to the area and the nail bed turns pink again. In dehydration, the blood will not be able to return to the tissues that fast. You can check a cat’s capillary refill time by pressing on its gums for about 2 seconds. Release the pressure. The gum should turn pink within 1 to 2 seconds. If it takes longer than 2 seconds, then you can rule dehydration.
- Very Fast Heart Rate
As mentioned, dehydration leads to reduced plasma volume. The heart will try to compensate for the reduction in blood volume by pumping a lot faster. This will help move the blood and supply oxygen to the rest of the cat’s body.
Cats are not known for panting. As such, when they do, it is often a sign of a serious condition. Panting is an animal’s way of removing excess heat from its body. It is possible that the cat is already overheating. Whenever you have overheating, dehydration is almost always a possibility.
- Very Scant Urine or Infrequent Urination
Blood goes through the kidneys to get filtered. Whatever excess the cat’s body doesn’t need goes out in the urine. However, there are also protective mechanisms in the kidney, allowing it to conserve as much water as it can if it senses that there is a reduction in blood volume. In dehydration, the kidneys sense that there is not enough water in the blood. Hence, it produces only very scant urine to help conserve water.
- Dry Mucus Membranes
A healthy, well-hydrated feline will have moist mucus membranes like the inner eyelids, the inside surface of the mouth, and the gums. If you notice these body parts being dry, it is almost always a sign of dehydration.
- Sunken Eyes
The eyes of the cat, like in all organisms, are suspended in their respective eye sockets by several muscles. If there is dehydration, the surrounding tissues lose their integrity and are unable to support the eyes. As such, the cat’s eyes will appear sunken or sullen. In some cases, it may look as if the cat is drowsy or has dull eyes.
There are other manifestations of feline dehydration. However, they may point to other health problems. Examples of these signs and symptoms are the following.
- Lethargy – dehydration can lead to cellular overheating, which can result in dysfunctional cellular metabolism.
- Constipation – the cat’s body attempts to conserve as much water as it can by drawing water and moisture from the feces. This leads to hard, solid, and compacted stools.
- Loss of appetite – this often accompanies lethargy or weakness.
Factors that Can Increase the Risk of Feline Dehydration
There are two principal causes of feline dehydration. The first is insufficient water intake. The second is due to unmitigated fluid losses. There are, however, conditions that can increase a cat’s risk of dehydration.
- Chronic and Profuse Diarrhea or Vomiting
Both vomiting and diarrhea are conditions that occur within the gastrointestinal tract. Dehydration is contingent on the amount of fluid losses at any given time. When fluid intake is not sufficient to replace the amount of fluids lost through diarrhea or vomiting, then dehydration can set in. What complicates the situation is that not only is there fluid loss; diarrhea can also lead to bicarbonate and electrolyte losses, while vomiting can lead to a reduction in hydrogen ions. This can produce acid-base or pH imbalance as well as electrolyte abnormalities.
- Kidney Failure
The main job of the kidney is to produce urine by filtering blood. The majority of the water found in the blood gets reabsorbed in the tubules of the kidneys for redistribution in the cat’s body. If the kidneys start to fail, they will no longer be able to reabsorb the water and put it back into the blood. This increases the removal of water from the cat’s body through increased urination. This is one of the mechanisms at play in kidney failure, although end-stage chronic kidney disease will present with no urine formation at all.
Cats and dogs sweat but only on the exposed parts of their bodies like the paws and the nose. Unfortunately, cats do not pant as often as dogs do. This puts them at an increased risk for overheating. A core body temperature that breaches the 103-degree Fahrenheit limit already warrants emergency veterinary services. Fever syndromes can also contribute to the risk of dehydration, especially if the temperature goes beyond the 103-degree mark. Increased body temperature hastens the rate of insensible water loss. If the loss exceeds what the amount of fluids that the cat can take in, then it is possible that dehydration will occur.
Hyperthyroidism causes an increase in cellular metabolism. This, in turn, raises the cat’s body temperature and hastens the removal of water from its body through insensible means. A thyroid storm can also cause an abrupt increase in the cat’s body temperature alongside increases in the blood pressure and the heart rate. The level of increase is so high that the condition is life-threatening.
One of the cardinal signs of diabetes is increased production of urine. They call this condition polyuria. It occurs because of the excessive levels of glucose in the blood. As excess glucose gets filtered out and sent into the urine, water molecules go along with it. This increases the volume of urine. Because water accompanies the excretion of excess glucose in the urine, there may not be enough water left in the blood and tissues. This can also produce dehydration in the feline.
- Dry Cat Food
Everyone knows that most cats do not have a very strong thirst drive. This is because they get their water mostly from the food that they eat. In the wild, cats feed on whole prey animals. These animals contain at least 70 percent moisture. When cats eat these animals, they also get the water that their bodies need. Unfortunately, some cat parents give their felines dry cat food. These products contain only 12 percent moisture at best. That means a cat feeding on dry pet food is already deficient by as much as 60 percent of its fluid requirements. It is also for this reason that the best food for a cat is still wet or canned food.
Treatments for Dehydration in Cats
Since the problem with dehydration is insufficient amounts of fluids in the cat’s body, then its treatment is to replenish the fluids.
- Intravenous Fluid Therapy
In severe cases of dehydration, the prompt initiation of intravenous fluid resuscitation can avert any serious and life-threatening complications. Hospitalization is a fundamental requirement for IVF therapy since fluid replacement occurs at a gradual rate. Veterinarians can also monitor the cat’s blood levels to gain an understanding of fluid and hydration status.
- Subcutaneous Fluid Therapy
Cat parents who are knowledgeable about administering fluids through the subcutaneous route can initiate a subcutaneous fluid therapy right in the home. The technique calls for the administration of not more than 300 mL of Lactated ringer’s solution injected under the cat’s skin. This is often recommended for pet parents who have cats with chronic dehydration.
It is important to remember that dehydration is often a manifestation of another disease process. Hence, it is imperative to address the pathology while subjecting the cat to fluid resuscitation. Symptomatic treatment may also work in addition to more definitive treatments. For example, giving anti-emetics should help lessen the frequency and intensity of vomiting.
Preventing Feline Dehydration
As always, preventing dehydration in cats makes more sense than waiting for the condition to develop and worry about its treatment. Here are some ways to prevent feline dehydration.
- Monitor Cat’s Fluid Intake
On average, cats need about 3.5 to 4.5 ounces of water for every 5 pounds of their body weight every single day. As such, if you have a 10-lb kitty, then you need to expect that it needs about 7 to 9 ounces of water every day. While this will not prevent dehydration, it will give you an idea of how much your pet needs to consume every day to avoid getting dehydrated.
Now that you have an idea of how much your pet needs to drink, you can start monitoring its water intake. Take into consideration the amount of moisture present in its food. For instance, if a 3-ounce can of pet food says it contains 80 percent moisture, then you know that this comprises 2.4 ounces of water. If the target is 7-9 ounces, then your cat will still need to consume an additional 4.6 to 6.6 ounces.
- Give High Quality Wet Cat Food
Skip the kibble when it comes to feeding cats. These may be very economical products, but they put your pet at a higher risk for dehydration. At best, dry cat food only contains about 12 percent moisture. Compare this to wet cat food that often contains 78 to 80 percent water.
- Encourage the Cat to Drink More Often
Using pet drinking fountains can entice a cat to drink more often. This is because the natural movement of circulating water simulates the presence of prey. It arouses the natural curiosity of the cat, allowing them to “taste” the water. And since the water is circulating, it tastes fresher, too.
Adding a bit of flavor to the cat’s water can also help increase the frequency of its drinking. A few drops of tuna or chicken broth is enough to make the water more “palatable”. A neat trick is to place catnip in the water bowl. Cats go crazy over catnip. Make sure they see you putting the catnip in their water bowl, though.
Making the water more refreshing also helps. Adding ice cubes can improve the taste of drinking water. Adding fruity ice cubes to help increase the water consumption of your pet feline.
Dehydration in cats is a serious health concern. While it is often a sign of another health problem, dehydration can be life-threatening in itself. Recognizing the symptoms and understanding the risk factors can help you both prevent and manage dehydration in your pet cat.