What Is Dehydration?
Most of us know that dehydration occurs when the body loses more fluid than it's taking in. When we get really thirsty, especially after a long, hot day or a tough workout, we can tell our bodies are dehydrated. Our mouths are dry. We crave water. Some of us get headaches, and many of us, unfortunately, grow irritable.
Dehydration, however, can have more serious effects on our bodies than simply making us unpleasant to be around.
All mammals rely on water to keep their bodies functioning, and dogs are no exception. Water plays a huge role in your dog's body. The short list of water's functions includes lubricating joints, helping regulate body temperature, transporting nutrients, flushing waste, and more. The long list could fill a medical textbook.
Normally, water is lost and gained throughout the day. Panting, breathing, urinating, defecating, and evaporation through the paws all contribute to normal water loss, which your dog compensates for by eating and drinking.
When your dog's body passes the point where normal activities can make up for the water loss, fluid shifts out of your dog's body cells to help the body quench its thirst. This results in a loss of electrolytes, such as sodium, chloride, and potassium. Since these electrolytes are important for muscle function, not to mention many other body processes, your dog's body starts to suffer. In serious cases, dehydration can even lead to kidney and other organ failure, and death.
Symptoms of Dehydration in Dogs
So how can you tell if your dog is dehydrated?
Knowing the symptoms of dehydration in humans is something we take for granted when diagnosing ourselves, but most owners do not know the signs of dehydration in dogs.
This is unfortunate, since knowing the signs of dehydration can help you catch a serious medical condition before it gets out of control.
Here are some of the common symptoms to get you started:
- Loss of appetite
- Reduced energy levels and/or lethargy
- Sunken, dry-looking eyes
- Dry nose and gums
- Loss of skin elasticity
Some of these are obvious to the naked eye, but others, like skin elasticity, require a simple test.
To test for dehydration in dogs, gently pinch their skin between your thumb and forefinger. In well-hydrated dogs, the skin will spring back to its original position. The skin of dehydrated dogs, on the other hand, will take longer to fall back into place.
It is a good idea to test your dog's skin when you are sure your dog is well hydrated, so that you have a base for what normal skin elasticity for your dog feels like. This is especially important for owners of wrinkly breeds, such as Bulldogs or Neapolitan Mastiffs, because their wrinkly skin might be misleading.
You can also test your dog's gums for dehydration. Dogs' gums are normally nice and moist, and in some cases, positively slimy. Dry, tacky-feeling gums, on the other hand, are a symptom of dehydration. If you've ever experienced a dry mouth as a side effect of a medication, then you have an idea of what this feels like.
As you are feeling your dog's gums, you can also test for capillary refill time. Press your finger gently against your dog's gums, and then remove your finger. In hydrated dogs, the area where you pressed will appear white for a second, and then return to its normal pink color almost immediately. In dehydrated dogs, the capillary refill time takes much longer.
Causes of Dehydration in Dogs
Dehydration can be caused by lack of water, but it is often a symptom of an underlying cause.
The first thing you should do if you suspect your pet is dehydrated is check to make sure he's had access to plenty of fresh, clean water all day. Sometimes, our pets' water bowls run dry, despite our best intentions, and this can be problematic on particularly hot days. In a vicious cycle, dehydrated dogs can lose their appetites, which causes them to eat less, and therefore eliminates the water content they would normally get from their food, too.
1) If your dog is not eating, or vomiting with or without diarrhea, suspect your dog is dehydrated and seek veterinary attention.
Your dog's body loses water and electrolytes when he is sick, due to fever, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, and other processes. This is why veterinarians often give sick pets fluids to keep them hydrated while they recover.
Very young dogs, senior dogs, nursing mothers, and toy dog breeds may be at an increased risk of dehydration, so be sure you know the signs of dehydration in dogs if your dog falls into one of these categories.
Treating Dehydration in Dogs
It might seem like offering your dog a bowl of water is enough to restore her water balance, but this only applies to very mild cases of dehydration.
2) If your dog is dehydrated for a medical reason, like diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, or heat stroke, you need to take her to the veterinarian. These are considered veterinarian emergencies. Dehydration makes it harder for your pet to recover, increasing her risks of suffering damaging or possibly fatal consequences.
Water is not the only thing dehydrated dogs lose. Those electrolytes also need to be replaced, and water alone will not get the job done. Your veterinarian may recommend giving your dog fluids to help balance her systems, and you may need to return to your veterinarian's office a few times for more fluids while your dog recovers.
Dehydration is often a symptom of a larger problem, so in addition to fluids, your veterinarian will want to diagnose and treat the underlying condition. This process will depend on your dog's other symptoms, and could involve anything from blood work and radiographs to surgery.
Preventing Dehydration in Dogs
The best way that you can prevent dehydration in your dog is to provide him with a constant supply of fresh, clean water. Like people, some dogs drink more than others, so you may need to take extra care to make sure picky drinkers get enough water. Your veterinarian can offer you advice about how best to ensure your dog consumes enough fluids, based on his age and condition.
We can't always prevent our dogs from getting sick, beyond keeping them up-to-date on their vaccines, and providing them with a healthy diet and exercise. But knowing the signs of dehydration can help us catch it before it becomes dangerous. Dehydration can also serve as a warning sign that something else is going on with your dog, helping to catch dangerous diseases and conditions before they get out-of-hand.
For more information about the signs of dehydration in dogs, or if you suspect that your dog might be dehydrated, contact your veterinarian.