The drooping tongue and heavy breathing are not really signs of dehydration, but a panting dog is certainly a picture of thirst. At any rate, we tend to feel pretty confident our dogs will figure out a way to let us know when they’re ready for a drink. But cats are more of a mystery. How can you tell when they’re thirsty?
This is the simple question we brought to the Seattle-based veterinarian and cat medicine expert, Christine Wilford, DVM--hoping she could help us solve the riddle of the cotton-mouthed cat.
The first thing we learned is that it’s possible to be too concerned about your cat’s drinking habits. According to Dr. Wilford, a typical ten pound cat needs only about a cup of fluid per day, and your cat may already be getting most of that from his wet food: “Keep in mind that cats on dry food require more water than cats eating canned food. In fact, if canned food is wet enough, your cat may not drink at all. Having evolved from the desert, their kidneys are better at conserving hydration than ours or your dog’s.”
Add to this camel-like retention of water the fact that cats don’t drink until they’re mildly dehydrated anyway, and you’ve got a classic picture of feline self-sufficiency: “Your cat drinks when he’s thirsty, unlike you--who may drink for flavor or to stave off dehydration. And if your cat is drinking, he's already dehydrated. But that’s normal. He drinks a little, restores body hydration, and gets on with his day of sleeping.”
The picture we’re getting is that cats by instinct don’t avoid dehydration, they manage it. And this is precisely where you, the caregiver, can help them on a hot summer day. Not by switching to a super-sized water bowl, but by implementing a few “environmental” tweaks that will avoid dehydration creep from a combination of dry food, extended heat, and over-hot napping spots.
A couple ideas
Switching to wet food or adding water to dry food are good ideas on a hot week. Also, cats favor cool, shaded spots in the house like tile floors or under beds. Dr. Wilford recommends that you find your cat’s favorite spots and make sure to close the shades. And if you know it’s going to be a scorcher and the AC’s out, why not invite your cat to take a load off by setting out a low-speed fan in front of a pan of ice?
Except in cases of diabetes or kidney dysfunction--where the need for high volume replenishment can create some unique challenges--your cat’s replenishment is a passive affair. As Dr. Wilford reminds us, cats basically shut down when it’s time to cool off: “Unlike dogs who cool off by panting--and thus lowering their body’s temperature through the heat lost in breath moisture--cats do not pant as their primary cooling method. Nor do they typically pant after exertion. They cool by finding a cool place and stopping body activity.”
By nature your cat is less alarmed about dehydration than you are. And the half-dozen water bowls you set up around the house is probably more for you than her. This summer, focus on creating an environment conducive to a cool and lazy afternoon, and, who knows, you might even find yourself on the receiving end of a purring nudge of thanks.
Special thanks to Dr. Wilford.