Our bodies, and those of our pets, are basically big bags of water that chemical reactions take place in. About 2/3 of our body weight is water, and everything that happens to keep your pet alive depends on just the right mix of water, salts, enzymes, and proteins.
When that balance gets thrown off, due to illness or lack of access to water, things start to work inefficiently or not at all. When a pet loses 10% or more of his body weight due to dehydration or just not drinking enough water, the dehydration alone can be deadly if not corrected quickly. For example, if a 10 lb dog who is vomiting and not drinking due to parvovirus drops to 9 lbs through loss of water and/or diarrhea, it can be fatal.
Dehydration Caused by Illness
Dehydration often accompanies symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, hypothermia (low body temperature), fever, no access to water, and other conditions. Veterinarians rely on physical exam findings to evaluate pets for dehydration, but in some cases laboratory tests are needed to really find out how dehydrated a pet is, and determine the cause. Blood tests, urinalysis and X-rays are the usual starting point for any investigation into how dehydrated a pet is (and why) and generally cost $250-500 depending on the tests chosen, location, and the type of hospital. After-hours or ER visits typically cost more due to the round-the-clock nature of care.
The most common mistake made by many owners of vomiting pets is to encourage food and water intake while the pet is still vomiting. This actually makes matters worse by not allowing the stomach and intestinal tract time to rest, and can cause additional vomiting and water loss - and more dehydration. Removing access to food and water for a short period of time may seem like it would make dehydration worse, but it can help your pet avoid further dehydration. Dehydration makes your pet feel lethargic, and can potentially cause severe problems with the kidneys and other internal organs if left unchecked.
Treating dehydration can be done at home or in the hospital, but for severe cases, treatment is best done in a veterinary hospital where IV fluids can be given and the response to treatment monitored. At times, veterinarians will give fluids under the skin (subcutaneous or SQ fluids) as preventative treatment for conditions that could cause mild dehydration, but this is usually not sufficient for more severe cases.
While it may seem like it's important to correct dehydration quickly, in some cases this can cause more problems than it solves by stressing the heart or causing imbalances in electrolytes like sodium and potassium. In the hospital, we usually aim to replace lost fluids over 6-24 hours depending on factors like age of the pet, condition causing the dehydration and a host of other factors.
How to Tell If Your Pet Is Dehydrated
Mouth: Are the tongue and gums moist or dry? If they are dry, there is a chance your pet may be dehydrated. Is the saliva thick or ropey? Normally, saliva is quite watery and hardly noticeable.
Eyes: Are they normal, or do they sink into the sockets? Do the corneas (the clear part at the front of the eye) appear shiny and have luster, or are they dry and dull? Sunken, dull or dry eyes may indicate dehydration, and warrant veterinary attention.
Skin: The 'skin turgor test' is used by doctors to check for dehydration. To perform this test, gently pinch a fold of skin over the shoulder blades and raise it up and inch or so and then check how quickly it takes to go back into normal position. Normally it snaps back into position almost immediately. If the skin is slow to return to position, your pet may be moderately to severely dehydrated. If the skin does not return fully to its position, your pet may be severely dehydrated and may be in critical condition. Seek veterinary attention immediately. The skin test is not always accurate and several factors such as age, weight loss, and condition of the skin can give misleading results.
Your veterinarian can help you determine how dehydrated your pet is, what the cause may be, and the best course of treatment. If in doubt, always have your pet evaluated by a veterinarian.
Preventing dehydration is important and may save you a trip to the veterinary hospital. Providing convenient sources of fresh, clean water is important. If your cat is on the 4th floor of your home and the only water is in a spider-infested bowl in the basement, your cat may let himself get dehydrated rather than trudge all the way to the basement and compete with insects for hydration.
Cats also often love running water, as it's usually the freshest and cleanest source of it in nature. Drinkwell® fountains provide a source of eternally running water that stimulates a cat's desire for running water in a convenient and water-saving way. Hydration in cats is of particular importance as it's linked to their urinary tract health, and providing sources of water that they'll actually drink is an important step in preventing urinary obstructions.
What to Do If Your Pet Is Dehydrated
Always provide a source of clean, easily accessible and preferably running water, especially for cats.
If you think your pet is only a little dehydrated, he's alert and is not vomiting, give frequent, small amounts of water by mouth. Give about 1 tsp for a cat or small dog to 1 tbsp to 1/4 cup for a medium to large dog every few hours. Call your veterinarian for further advice.
If you think your pet has moderate or severe dehydration based on the information above, call your vet.
If your pet is lethargic, in pain, or has not eaten for 24 hours, seek veterinary attention.
If your pet is vomiting and appears dehydrated, call your vet now.
What NOT to Do If Your Pet Is Dehydrated
Do not allow your pet to have immediate free access to large amounts of water or other liquid.
Do not feed your pet any dry food until directed to do so by a veterinary professional.
Prevention of dehydration is important, so check your pet's water sources today and make sure they're clean and easily available. For those times when fate intervenes, prevention fails us, and things go wrong, you now have the knowledge to assess your pet's level of hydration and, with the help of your veterinarian, get to the root of the problem and get him better
Dr. Tony is a veterinary emergency medicine specialist who has been in practice for 19 years. He lives in Indiana with his wife, also a veterinarian, their three children, and their pets: 4 chickens, 2 cats, and his tripawd dog, Rocco.
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