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by Jan Reisen

What Is Canine Dehydration?

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 to 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.

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 is reduced, which 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, the severe shortage of fluids can even lead to kidney and other organ failure and to death.

Yellow Labrador Retriever Drinking

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 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, heat stroke, or illnesses and a 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 these diseases or conditions: kidney disease, diabetes, or some types of cancer.

There are some dogs who just won’t drink much water unless they are encouraged to do so.  Or they are exercising outside to the point where they are panting and therefore losing fluids.

What Are the Symptoms of Canine Dehydration?

So, 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 potential serious medical conditions before they become life-and-death emergencies. According to Dr. Jerry Klein, the AKC’s chief veterinary officer 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
  • Panting
  • Sunken, dry-looking eyes
  • Dry nose
  • Dry, sticky gums
  • Thick saliva

Loss of skin elasticity is the easiest signs to test for dehydration. To test for it, Dr. Klein suggests that you gently hold some of the dog’s skin near his 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, and 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 he drinks 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.

He also may need to have his electrolytes replaced because when his body isn’t getting enough water, fluids containing electrolytes are drawn out of the cells, causing an imbalance that affects his organs. If your dog is not vomiting, you can try giving him 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 the 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 he doesn’t get in that condition in the first place: provide him with a constant supply of clean, clear water at all times, including when you take him 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, he will probably 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 his 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 items that can be eaten like socks and other inedible objects and garbage like corn cobs that can cause blockages put away and close all garbage lids. But understanding the importance of providing our dogs with ready access to fresh water and knowing the signs of dehydration can help us prevent dehydration and catch it before it becomes dangerous.