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Is My Dog Dehydrated – How to Tell

When my Cocker Spaniel’s gums became a bit sticky and dry, I wondered, “Is my dog dehydrated?” Dehydration is very sneaky, and pet parents may not always realize when their dog is suffering from this dangerous condition.

We rushed my dog to the emergency veterinarian due to his dry gums and the appearance of thickened saliva. He was recovering from a bout of pancreatitis, but he seemed to be drinking normal amounts of water. 

After performing a urinalysis and blood work at the emergency clinic, my dog was diagnosed with dehydration. Despite his recovery from pancreatitis, his body was depleted of the essential fluids needed to stay alive. 

My dog, Dexter, spent a few hours in the emergency room for intravenous fluids, the gold standard in correcting a dog’s dehydration status. By delivering fluids in a controlled environment, veterinary technicians could perform tests to determine when my dog was no longer dehydrated.

dog with mast cell tumor

Is My Dog Dehydrated – How To Tell

On discharge, we were instructed to monitor our dog at home and continue to watch for symptoms of dehydration, which we will discuss further in a bit. 

When your dog reaches the point that the amount of fluid they take in is less than the amount they are losing, blood flow and the volume of fluids is reduced. Like people, dogs need their blood to flow and oxygen delivered to tissues and organs in the body.

One of the easiest (but not always foolproof) ways to determine if your dog is experiencing dehydration is to pull lightly on the skin on their back, preferably closer to the neck or scruff area. Use your thumb and forefinger to perform this test.  Skin loses elasticity during periods of dehydration. 

Skin experiencing moisture loss will spring back slowly into its original place. The skin won’t spring back when a dog is severely dehydrated. 

Of note, senior dogs, those with extra skin folds or longer hair, and those who are overweight or obese may be more difficult to assess. Never wait when dehydration is a consideration.

My dog’s internal medicine veterinarian at the time indicated by the time a dehydrated dog is showing signs of tented skin, the condition may be advanced. Organ damage is possible at that stage. We’ll share more ways to tell if your dog is dehydrated. 

Here’s how to perform the skin tenting or skin turgor test on your dog:

How to see if your dog is dehydrated

Symptoms of Dehydration In Dogs

There are other ways to tell if your dog is dehydrated. Dehydration symptoms in dogs include, but are not limited to:

  • Sunken eyes
  • Dry mouth and gums, or xerostomia
  • Thickened saliva
  • Unsteady or wobbly on their feet
  • Excessive panting
  • Back may feel warm to the touch
  • Lethargy, tired
  • Dry, chapped nose
  • Darkened urine 
  • Loss of appetite, diarrhea, or vomiting 

On their own, each of these symptoms can indicate other disease processes. Skin that lacks elasticity is a key sign but coupled with one or more of the others, your dog needs medical attention.

Never second guess a diagnosis, and always seek veterinary help, as dehydration can quickly turn very dangerous.

FACT: Water makes up approximately 60% of the weight of healthy, non-obese dogs.

How Dogs Become Dehydrated: Causes

“One problem I’ve seen in the southeastern part of the United States is dogs who drink saltwater at the beach,” according to Sharon Loehr Daley, a veterinary technician of 30 years who is now in her third year of veterinary school. “Dogs that like to play fetch in the ocean are at risk of becoming severely dehydrated and dying.”

Daley says the sodium in ocean water causes water imbalances in the body that can lead to cell rupture. The solution? Pet parents should bring plenty of fresh water for their dogs at the beach. It is best not to allow your dog to take in saltwater. 

Since Daley has seen a lot in her decades in veterinary medicine, she says some other causes of dehydration in dogs include:

  • Withholding water from puppies to prevent accidents in the house
  • Dogs who are on steroids or diuretics without free access to water; Water is critical to their well-being, as certain medications make them vulnerable to dehydration.
  • Kidney disease
  • Over-exercising your dog in warm weather
  • Leaving your dog alone in a car in warm weather
  • Drinking antifreeze (which can lead to death)
  • Electrolyte imbalances (i.e., elevated calcium)
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Diabetes insipidus
  • Cushing’s disease
  • Addison’s disease
  • Dogs who are vomiting or have severe diarrhea
  • Heatstroke
  • Underlying undiagnosed illness
  • Fever
  • Dental pain, which may cause a dog to drink less
  • Excessive panting from exercise or being outside
  • Taking in ocean water 

When my Cocker Spaniel was diagnosed with dehydration, he vomited a few times earlier that day. Pancreatitis and dehydration nearly killed my dog, which is why I am grateful we acted fast and sought emergency care.  

Dogs who are unable to hold food or water down should see a veterinarian immediately, as the risk of severe dehydration is high. When fluids leave a dog’s body – through sweat, urine, vomit, or diarrhea – the risk of dehydration increases. 

“In some disease processes, it’s the dehydration that will ultimately cost a dog their life,” Daley says.

Dogs lose water when panting, sweating through their paws, and through waste. 

Ways to Check for Dehydration In Your Dog At Home

How do you know if your dog is dehydrated? In addition to the symptoms noted above, these tests will help you assess your dog’s overall hydration status:

  • Perform the skin tenting/skin turgor test at home.
  • Test his urine with at-home vet-recommended urine strips.
  • Check his heart rate if possible (moderate dehydration increases the heart rate.)
  • Dry, tacky/sticky gums 
  • Thick saliva 
  • Test his capillary refill: Press your finger on his gums until the pressure produces a lightened spot. Remove your finger. The natural color of his gums should come back within a second or two. Gums should be slick and moist, not dry. 

How Can I Get My Dog To Drink More Water?

If your dog isn’t a huge water drinker, make sure to discuss this with your veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical causes. 

Some tips to get your dog to drink more water and prevent dehydration include:

  • Purchase him a new water bowl.
  • Offer a low-calorie, palatable prebiotic drink like DoggyRade, which quenches thirst like humans drinking sports drinks.
  • Use a dog water fountain that circulates water to entice your pup.
  • Clean the water bowl frequently with warm water and dish soap.
  • Place water bowls in different locations around the house.
  • Allow your dog to drink some low-sodium soup broth for hydration.
  • Offer him an ice cube with caution so he doesn’t choke.
  • Feed a rehydrated diet that requires water to be added to the food, like Dr. Harvey’s.
  • Keep the toilet lid closed, so your dog doesn’t drink from it.

Here are more of our favorite tips to get your dog to drink more water.

Do not force your dog to drink too much water at one time. This can make him sick and cause vomiting, leading to worsening dehydration. 

How Much Water Should My Dog Drink?

“Dogs should drink at least one ounce of water per pound of body weight,” Daley shares, “but there are so many variables.”

She says dogs who eat moist food have water contributing to their daily intake. If dogs pant more, intake more sodium, or have any kind of illness, they may need more water.

“It can be very harmful to withhold water from a dog if any of the above is occurring,” she reports. “It can lead to dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, kidney damage, and worse.”

There’s even an online calculator to determine how much water your dog should drink created by Dominika Smiatek, MD, Ph.D. candidate.

Dogs, like people, have different requirements and needs. Check with your veterinarian and any other specialists your dog regularly sees for additional questions.

Myths About Dog Dehydration

There are a lot of myths floating around about canine dehydration. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Myth: Canine dehydration only occurs in warmer weather. 

Fact: Dogs need water year-round, just like people. Dehydration can occur at any age, to any dog, in any type of weather or climate. 

Myth: Dogs who spend most of their time indoors aren’t at risk of dehydration.

Fact: Dogs who spend time outdoors or indoors can become dehydrated at anytime. 

Myth: Intestinal parasites can’t cause dehydration in dogs.

Fact: Most parasites cannot be seen in the dog’s stool; worms can and do cause dehydration.

Myth: Eating a foreign body cannot cause dehydration.

Fact: Dogs who eat socks, toys, etc. may become dehydrated or worse due to gastrointestinal obstruction (when food or water cannot pass through.)

Myth: A blood test cannot clarify your dog’s level of dehydration.

Fact: A blood test CAN clarify your dog’s level of dehydration and help with the cause and how to treat it.

Is my dog dehydrated? How to tell.

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