Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Cat's may have nine lives, but when a cat becomes dehydrated, the outlook doesn't look too good. Prompt treatment is vital to keep the cat hydrated as much as possible and to prevent him/her from deteriorating. Should you find a dehydrated stray cat show up at your porch or if your cat becomes dehydrated, there are various things you may do, however, the best option would be to have a veterinarian examine the cat and determine what is causing the dehydration in the first place.
Signs That Your Cat Is Dehydrated
A dehydrated cat can be easy to identify. First of all, his coat would not look in top shape but will lackluster and appear rough and neglected. If the cat's skin between the shoulder blades is pulled (to form a tent), the skin will not snap back into place quickly. Rather, it will take a few extra seconds or remain lifted. The skin on the cat's back is also a great place to do the test. However, this test may not be too accurate especially in obese cats where the fat layers under the skin make it challenging to identify it's level of elasticity.
Another way to test for dehydration is to touch the cat's gums. In a normal cat, the gums should be slick, wet and glistening; in a dehydrated cat, they feel tacky and dry. The cat's saliva may be thick.
Capillary Refill Time
Capillary refill time may be slow. This can be tested by pressing on the gums with a finger. The pressed gum will turn whitish; once you release pressure, the gum should return to pink. When the gum remains whitish or takes longer than normal to return to its normal color, then the cat is dehydrated.
A dehydrated cat may also become lethargic, its eye may appear sunken, and its heart rate may increase while the pulse remains weak. These are the signs of a progressive stage of dehydration.
The level of dehydration will determine if the cat can be treated at home by giving oral fluids or if the cat will need subcutaneous or intravenous fluids given by the vet. In severe cases, the cat may not be able to hold the fluids given by mouth or the cat may have gone past the stage where oral fluids would be of any help. This is why having a vet visit the cat would be essential.
What Happens in Dehydration?
A dehydrated cat lacks essential elements such as electrolytes, sodium, potassium, and water. This lack of fluids leaves vital body cells deprived of water ultimately and can cause organ failure and death.
A veterinarian can check the level of dehydration by checking the cat's blood protein level and packed cell volume. When both of these tests return with elevated numbers, they often indicate that dehydration is present. Another test is done by checking the urine concentration. The more concentrated and yellow the urine, the more dehydrated the cat.
Skin Turgor Test in Cats
Diagnosing the Level of Dehydration
The veterinarian may then come up with a percentage indicating the cat's level of dehydration. Cats generally contain about 60% water. Generally, 5% is a very manageable level of dehydration, whereas 15% is the highest level of dehydration. Beyond this number, the chances of survival are very slim.
Below is a closer look into these levels according to Petplace.com:
- 5% or Below: At this level, the dehydration is easy to control. When the skin is lifted it will spring back swiftly. Usually, this level of dehydration goes undetected.
- 5%: The skin will have only a slight delay, not perceptible to the untrained eye.
- 6%–9%: This dehydration level is more serious, the skin test is delayed, gums are dry and the eyeballs may appear sunken.
- 10–12%: The skin remains lifted and does not return back into position when lifted. The cat is lethargic, the pulse is weak and its heart rate will be faster. Gums will be significantly dry and eyes will appear definitively sunken.
- 12%–15%: The cat is in a life-threatening situation. Organ failure may occur swiftly. The cat may be in shock by then and only quick aggressive veterinary treatment may help if possible.
The Causes of Dehydration
The veterinarian may ask various questions to determine the cause of dehydration, however, in case of a stray cat, its history is often undetermined, so the veterinarian may put the cat on SQ or IV fluids and run some other tests to identify the underlying cause of the dehydration.
Common causes of dehydration are as follows:
- Prolonged vomiting and diarrhea
- Exposure to heat, heatstroke
- Lack of fluid intake
- Lack of moist foods
- Kidney problems
- Excessive drooling
- Large wounds or burns
- Increased urination
When the cause is found the vet will then start treatment once the cat is sufficiently hydrated. If the cat is found to have a low dehydration level and the cause is not related to illness, then the vet may give fluids and provide instructions on how to further treat the cat at home.
Treating Dehydration at Home
Low to slightly mild levels of dehydration can be managed at home. Severe cases need prompt veterinary treatment, so please do not delay vet treatment if this is the case. If you plan to treat at home, talk to your vet first if your cat is diabetic.
To treat at home you will need:
- 1 bottle of unflavored Pedialyte
- 1 cc size dropper
- Canned food/meat baby food with no onion/garlic (try Beech-Nut)
- Ice chips
- Give small amounts of Pedialyte by mouth every 10 minutes slowly for an hour. Make sure your cat does not suffocate or inhale it in its lungs.
- Dilute some baby food/cat canned food with warm water and dropper feed slowly.
- Alternate the Pedialyte droppers and the diluted food droppers throughout the day until the cat appears less dehydrated and interested in eating on its own.
- Once cat appears interested in drinking on its own, fill a bowl with water.
If the cat vomits up food or refuses to be dropper fed, offer ice chips to lick. Cats that are nauseous will refuse food and water but may be interested in licking ice chips. You can also freeze unflavored Pedialyte and offer the ice to lick.
Note: Small kittens affected by vomiting or diarrhea can dehydrate very quickly so veterinary attention is best.
Other Hydration Methods
More hydrating options for finicky drinkers:
- Open a can of low-sodium tuna in water and offer the cat the water to drink
- Try Whiskas milk that is lactose-free; some cats may find it appealing.
- Boil chicken breast and puree it with water to make a slurry/gruel to drink
There are various things that can be done to prevent dehydration from occurring if the dehydration is not illness-related. Here are a few good tips:
- Always offer lots of fresh water
- Invest in a cat water fountain
- Offer canned food
- Offer baby food with no onion or garlic
- Moisten dry food
- Add Pedialyte to the water bowl
- Offer ice chips
- Have the cat seen by a vet as soon as you suspect dehydration
If your cat is dehydrated, it is highly suggested that you have him/her checked by the vet to rule out any diseases. Some cats may simply not drink enough, so a water fountain can do wonders in these cases.
If on the other hand, you have found a stray dehydrated cat, please try your best to re-home it or take it to a shelter. Stray cats do not have nine lives at all and live half the years a normal cat would live. If he/she has pulled the strings to your heart you may then consider adopting him yourself, if so congratulations and bless your heart for saving another stray cat from the road!
Be Sure to Consult With Your Veterinarian
Remember, if your cat is dehydrated, please consult with your vet to determine the underlying cause and treat it accordingly. Do not attempt to treat cat dehydration at home if your cat is more than mildly dehydrated.
A Vet Explains How to Give Fluids
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
M Wilson on August 16, 2020:
I have read that Pedialyte changed its formulation to now contain zinc which can harm kittens and cats, even fatally.
Debra on July 02, 2020:
I have a 13 year old strictly indoor cat. Last month he suddenly got very lethargic. I took him to vet and they said bloodwork was all good, but he was very dehydrated. They gave him fluids and a steroid shot and said it probably happened because of the heat (even though he is indoors and we have ac) and his age.Within 24 hours he was himself again. Exactly 1 month to the day, it has happened again! Vet did more bloodwork and an xray and said all looked good, organs functioning good and no masses. Again, they gave him steroid and fluids.They cannot understand why this happens to him. He seems to have lost an interest in water the last few months, so I have been giving him wet food daily, so why does he keep getting dehydrated? This time it is taking longer for him to bounce back. 2 days later he is moving around slowly and eating a little. I am very concerned. I don't think he can continue to shut down once a month and bounce back. Vet said he'd consult with other drs and hopes to get some input. Maybe a monthly steroid shot? Any suggestions PLEASE?! I'm so worried. Thank you.
three on November 14, 2019:
So did that kitten really need fluid or.......was it just a guinea pig? If so shame on you. That kittens so playful and happy pre needle and afterwards you can see that something has changed . Not the same personality. Was this necessary for it's health.... I really question that.
Dana Lee on March 25, 2019:
Michael catch me outside how about that. A cat will claw your eyes out tonight if you do not donate to a shelter. you will die. A cat will lay on your chest and suck the life out of you. She will steal your breath. Evolution has skipped you. You are a dumb/old/weak slut. You have no idea what you are talking about. Keyboard warrior. I bet you are a 30 year old basement troll. that drinks mountain dew and pees in a bucket and smokes newports because you are too busy playing World of Warcraft. How did you even find this page? I guess you have a lot of free time on your hands because mommy and daddy let you live in their basement for free. Now Michael, you have a great day. I hope you never have any pets or kids because if they show one sign of weakness you would let them die. I hope you never experience any medical problems that would land you in the hospital because you need to adapt. Great talk. Stupid.
Peter on August 25, 2018:
Michael- you are not sorry but I feel sorry for you. This is not about evolution. It's about something in life called love. I suppose you have evolved an immunity to that stupidity. Everything dies including you. Some of us choose to be happy along the way.
Michael on June 17, 2018:
I'm sorry, but if a cat is too dumb/old/weak to drink fluids, then it needs to die. There are no shortages of cats. If a cat is too stupid to drink water to keep itself alive, then we don't need that cat reproducing and making more stupid acts. What evolution dictates is that cats that can adapt to a dry food and then drink enough water (usually located in near proximity to provided food) to keep itself alive to reproduce and produce a litter of more human friendly and smarter cats. That's why dogs are so adaptable. The ones who adapted to human feeding schedules and ate what was provided flourished, the wolves who needed wild meat went about their wild business.Cats will never be as domesticated as dogs if we cater to there needs. The key is to reproduce those cats that can conform to what we human beings want them for. If a cat is too stupid to drink the fresh water provided, then it needs to die off.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 10, 2017:
I would get her seen by a vet to find the cause. Google Feline cerebellar hypoplasia this is something that can cause kittens to fall over.
Bernadette on November 06, 2017:
Maybe you can help me. I found a kitten. Saw her running outside but falling over. I had to get her. She ran from me and was hard to catch but I got her. The falling over is what really freaked me out. She was severely dehydrated. My guess is she’s no older than 6 weeks. Gave her water right away, stopped at store, got moist kitten food, kitten milk, bottle, catbox/litter. She ate right away. She didn’t want to drink but I still dropped milk in her mouth. Her stool was loose At first . I am feeding her every 4 hrs. She eats well, she actually uses the catbox and she is progressing nicely. First day cat box, second day a meow (only 1) . Second day started to play with my fingers, third day a pur, now she is in those stages. My concern is her motor skills are still not great. She is still weak but obviously strong enough to run from me when she did and walk to and from cat box but that is really it. I figured I would give her a week to see how she is then and I can scrape up funds to go to a Vet if she’s not walking good .
I read that they do fall over from dehydration and she was incredibly dehydrated and she’s still so young. Like anything, I’m sure it takes time. Do you think I’m on the right track here or should her motor skills already be better. Found her Nov 1 Weds night, it’s now Monday morning Nov 6. She’s a cutie pie, like to play with my fingers and I bought a laser light and she’s intrigued but still happy attacking my fingers. Anyway... I just wanted to see if I could get an answer on this thing. Appreciate feedback. Thanks
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 09, 2017:
Camille, I am terribly sorry to hear your cat has passed. Please don't feel bad. I doubt it was the pedialyte as it's made for babies and vets have been recommending it for years. My friend wh0 works for a shelter cured so many dehydrated cats with Pedialyte. While effective in treating mild dehydration unfortunately though Pedialyte cannot cure a cat that is dying from cancer or has some other extreme, life-threatening illness. From the sound of your cat being unable to walk, it could be he threw a blood clot (saddle thrombus). Sending my deepest condolences,
camille on May 24, 2017:
im not really a reference , sorry for the mistakes, im french canadian , but my cat was really sick cancer probably he add 2 operation in a row, and was a blind cat,but after second operation he came back home couldnt walk anymore, tried to feed him and give him water with the drops. anyway after few days didnt know wath to do anymore, thought he was dshydrated . so just saw that post went to get some pedyalite , gave him a few drops, 2 times and he died. in my arrms. so, i know he was already ding but anyway dont know if its the pedyalite. but will never give that to my cat anymore.... bad exprience.
ritamarie recine on May 22, 2017:
MY QUESTION IS THIS. I HAVE BROUGHT MY NINE YEAR OLD CAT AT THE VETERINARIAN BECAUSE IT HAD BEEN 2 DAYS HE WAS LETHARGIC, AND DID NOT WANT TO EAT.
THE VETERINARIAN CLAIMED HE HAS PANCREATITIS..
TODAY IT HAS BEEN 2 DAYS SINCE I BROUGHT MY MUFFIN
I HAVE AN APPPOINTMENT TOMORROW... I ALSO HAVE NOTICED WE ARE UNABLE TO TOUCH HIS BACK FOOD.. THE VET SAYS ALL OK .I FEEL DIFFERENTLY. I BELIEVE I WILL AS KE FOR X RAYS.
IF THE CASE IS PANCREATITIS .. I AM NOT SURE ...SHE ALSO SAID HE MAY HAVE HAD A FIGHT WITH ANOTHER CAT OT WAS HIT BY A HUMAN ... ARE THERE ANY QUESIONS I SHOULD BE ASKING. HOW LONG DOES PANCREATITIS LIST THANK YOU RITA RECINE
Gert on March 15, 2017:
NO, NEVER USE GATORADE OR PEDIALYTE WITH SUGAR IN IT AS CATS CANT METABOLIZE SUGAR. BETTER TO MAKE A LEAN MEAT KITTY BROTH FROM BOILING THE MEAT FOR FLAVOURING THE WATER , chicken or pork loin (fat removed).
Lily on June 05, 2016:
One helpful suggestion when you're administering lactated ringer's solution via IV - - warm the fluid bag first, by putting it in a sink of warm water - - just warm enough so that it isn't so uncomfortable for your cat. Makes a big difference!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 17, 2014:
Very true. If we think of the food they would eat in the wild, rats, birds etc. it is far from dry.
Pat Moire from West Village, New York City on September 17, 2014:
Cats can't live by dry food alone. Adding water to their wet food really helps to keep them hydrated.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 25, 2013:
Thanks Alison, I added several details after my cat suffered from kidney problems and I wanted to make this guide as complete and clear as possible for all those poor dehydrated kitties, thanks for the votes and pinning!
Alison Graham from UK on September 25, 2013:
This is such a comprehensive guide and should be the go-to resource for any cat owner who supects or is concerned that their cat may be dehydrated. You write clearly in an easy-to-understand way and I found the information very helpful indeed. Thank you. Voted up useful and pinned.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 03, 2013:
That's great! We often think of water, but there are many tasty ways to hydrate pets that go beyond H2O.
lisa on July 03, 2013:
I gave my cat chicken flavored baby food mixed with a little water. I placed this on my finger and she licked it off. Within 5 minutes she appeared better
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 18, 2013:
Most cats won't really be eager to drink flavored gatorade, better off trying unflavored pedialyte or broth with no garlic or onion, here is a helpful article with options:
ashley on May 18, 2013:
What kind/color of Gatorade do I use?
austin veley on June 08, 2012:
yea my sisters cat is dehydrated and the cat will not eat or drink
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 04, 2012:
Chyna, bless your heart for helping this poor fellow out. It really depends on how dehydrated this cat is, does the skin stay lifted when you pull it in a tent on the shoulder blades and back? I had a person comment not too long on an article claiming that he had success asking an EMT truck/station for a bag of expired fluids..Apparently, he claimed Iv's never expire but they have to be thrown away by law on certain date. Ask a vet or person who has a sick cat (with renal failure) how to give fluids at home. best wishes
chyna on June 04, 2012:
I have a cat with me at this moment that is dehydrated at this exact moment and we are feeding him tuna and water and eggs and milk and electrolyte for children, it is starving and we found it at a nearby house, we are trying to get it
to come back from its dehydradtion, and we don't have the money to take it to the vet, will this cure it, or what?
Sam on May 18, 2012:
This information is VERY useful, my cat was very weak & after reading this & doing all of this he's back to his crazy ten week old self, he will be seen by my cousin tomorrow who is a vet tech tomorrow!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 29, 2012:
I am afraid you will have to take her to the vet ASAP for fluids at this point, this sounds critical. What was the vet's diagnosis?
Mishka on April 29, 2012:
My kitty is a month old. the vet's are not able to do anything and she is too weak to walk. the vet prescribed Proviboost which im giving her twice a day. she has all the dehydration symptoms and is vomiting out all the water and medicine. what can be done now? i don't want to see her die ....:'(
maryjane on September 10, 2011:
If you put your cat into a cattery they will make sure your cat gets any medication and will also make sure the cat eats and drinks plenty. she will be in safe hands
india on August 22, 2011:
hello anne,...i hope you will respond because I see you went on a camping trip, and was wondering if you took your cat because this is exactly what happened to me and my cat. i took her camping (she is just over 1) and she was very scared (I know perhaps it wasn't a smart idea) but anyhow, she stopped eating/drinking (well very minimal) and I am just soooo worried now.. Just came back from the vet, they did a blood test. She has a fever, she is dehydrated. They gave antibiotics which I have to give to her twice a day for 14 days. And now I have another problem that I am booked for a (very very long overdue) vacation and I am supposed to leave next week which would be day 7 of the antibiotics. I'm screwed!!!! :((((( Maybe this is just a vent, I don't know, I'm just so upset. If anyone can offer me some advice here I would be ever so grateful!
Anne on August 15, 2011:
Thank you! My 14 yr old cat is allergic to flea bites and gets a feaver then becomes dehydrated. I try to take every precaution, but shortly after coming home from a camping trip, I noticed he was not eating or drinking. Normally I take him to the vet but this time, his vets office was closed so I was very worried. He responded wonderfully to the pedialyte and watered down wet food. This morning he greeted me with kisses! Thank you so much!
cassia on June 08, 2011:
i bought a bottle of unflavored pedialyte in Safeway's baby section yesterday. i mixed it with milk and gave it to my cat and i put the rest in the fridge. according to the instructions on bottle, it is to be discard 2 days after opening. i only use 1 or 2 tablespoon in 2 days (that's all she'll drink with milk). she's old and feisty so i don't want to use a dropper to cause her any extra agony. i put it in fridge, can it last longer? if so, how long? can anyone please answer this for me? thanks.
Anne-Marie from Montreal on July 07, 2010:
Very useful! It is very hot this week and I have a cat that is constipated so I will apply everything I can that I learned in your article. Thank you!
Cat Diarrhea on April 27, 2009:
Determine also if your cat is experiencing diarrhea. If it is, then make sure to give it something that would treat the diarrhea as well as the dehydration. Effective antibiotics are the best to control diarrhea. More than dehydration, diarrhea poses a fatal health risk for younger cats