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Dehydration in dogs occurs when the body loses more fluid than it’s taking in. All mammals rely on water to keep their bodies functioning properly, and dogs are no exception.
In fact, water is necessary for virtually every important body function, including lubricating joints, cushioning internal organs, aiding digestion, and regulating body temperature. When we think of nutrition, we generally think of food. But water is a critically necessary ingredient that allows the cells in your dog’s body to absorb nutrients.
It is normal for a dog’s body to gain and lose water 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.
What Is Canine Dehydration?
When a dog’s body gets to the point where normal fluid intake fails to make up for water loss, the blood flow and the volume of fluids are reduced. In turn, this reduces the delivery of oxygen to organs and tissue. Dehydration in dogs also results in a loss of electrolytes, such as sodium, chloride, and potassium. These minerals have important functions in the body:
- Balancing the body’s pH
- Moving nutrients into cells
- Facilitating muscle function
- Regulating nerve function
In the most serious cases of canine dehydration, severe fluid shortage even lead to the failure of the kidneys and other organs.
Causes of Dehydration in Dogs
Lack of water intake can cause dehydration, which can occur if a dog doesn’t have proper access to water or won’t drink enough. Whether you’re at home or you’re gone for part of the day, be sure to leave enough water so your dog will not run out.
Acute attacks of vomiting and diarrhea, heatstroke, or illnesses and fever may also cause a dog to become dehydrated. Puppies, senior dogs, nursing mothers, and toy dog breeds may have an increased risk of dehydration. Sometimes dehydration in dogs is a symptom of an underlying cause, including kidney disease, diabetes, or some types of cancer.
Some dogs just won’t drink much water unless they are encouraged to do so. Or they may be exercising outside to the point where they are panting and therefore losing fluids. In those cases, make sure to encourage your dog to drink and ensure they’re not exercising too much, especially in hot weather.
What Are the Symptoms of Canine Dehydration?
How can you tell if your dog is dehydrated? Unfortunately, our dogs can’t tell us they’re thirsty, but knowing the signs of dehydration can help dog owners respond quickly and also catch potentially serious medical conditions before they become emergencies.
According to Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer for the AKC and an expert in veterinary emergency and critical care, symptoms of canine dehydration include:
- Loss of skin elasticity
- Loss of appetite
- Vomiting (with or without diarrhea)
- Reduced energy levels and lethargy
- Sunken, dry-looking eyes
- Dry nose
- Dry, sticky gums
- Thick saliva
Testing skin elasticity allows you to check for dehydration. Dr. Klein suggests that you gently hold some of the dog’s skin near their shoulder blades, raise it up, and then let it go. Watch carefully as it falls back into place. In well-hydrated dogs, the skin instantly 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’s a good idea to first test your dog’s skin when you are sure he’s well-hydrated so that you have a base for what normal skin elasticity feels like. This is especially important for owners of wrinkly breeds, such as Bulldogs or Neapolitan Mastiffs, because their skin may not be as elastic, even under normal conditions,” says Dr. Klein.
Another test is to check your dog’s gums to feel whether they’re sticky and dry. While you’re doing that, test for capillary refill time. Press your finger gently against your dog’s gums and then remove your finger. In a well-hydrated dog, 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.
Treating Canine Dehydration
If you suspect your pet is dehydrated, first make sure they drink plenty of fresh, cool water, especially in hot weather. 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.
Your pet also may need to have their electrolytes replaced. When a body isn’t getting enough water, fluids containing electrolytes are drawn out of the cells, causing an imbalance that affects the organs. If your dog is not vomiting, you can try giving them an electrolyte-enhanced fluid like Pedialyte. It’s best to check with your veterinarian for dosage recommendations.
“If your dog has any of the symptoms of dehydration listed above, persistent vomiting, or you suspect heatstroke, take him to the vet immediately. This is considered a medical emergency,” says Dr. Klein. “The vet can administer subcutaneous or intravenous fluids to most quickly replace the fluids that were lost and prevent further loss.”
Since dehydration is often a symptom of a larger problem, your veterinarian will want to diagnose and treat any underlying condition. This process will depend on your dog’s other symptoms and could involve anything from blood work to X-rays or other tests.
How to Prevent Dehydration in Dogs
The best way to protect your dog from dehydration is to make sure they don’t get in that condition in the first place. Provide them with a constant supply of clean, clear water at all times, including when you take them outside. Some dogs drink more than others, so you may need to take extra care to make sure that picky drinkers get enough water. Some dog owners try flavoring water with bone broth or giving their dogs ice cubes to chew on.
Depending on the weather and temperature, and the activity level and exercise of your dog, they may need more water on some days than others. As a general rule, dogs require at least one ounce of water per day for each pound of body weight. Your veterinarian can offer advice about how best to ensure your dog consumes enough fluids, based on their age, weight, 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, exercise, and regularly scheduled examinations by a veterinarian. Make sure to put away inedible items dogs like to chew, such as socks. To avoid them getting into your garbage, make sure the can’s lid is closed. You can also buy dog-proof garbage cans.
Understanding the importance of providing our dogs with ready access to fresh water, as well as knowing the signs of dehydration, can help us keep our dogs safe.