Cat Won’t Drink: How Much Water Cats Need & Dehydration Prevention

Author: Dr. Beth Turner

Published: November 28, 2017

Updated: September 30, 2021

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how much water should cats drink

It seems to be human nature (and definitely cat nature) to resist what is good for us.

This is especially true when it comes to the consumption of water. Similar to us, a cat's body weight comprises 60 to 70% water.

So, does it not seem logical that we both would want to consume lots of water? I mean, you are what you drink (I know that isn’t the correct saying, but maybe it should be!)

 

Why Is It Essential for Cats to Drink Water?

The most obvious answer to this question is to prevent dehydration. But aside from this very important reason, consuming water is necessary for the following:

  • helps flush toxins from the kidneys
  • decreases the chances of kidney and bladder stones
  • aids in digestion
  • helps maintain body temperature
  • helps with circulation
  • aids in the transport and absorption of nutrients
  • helps keep essential body organs hydrated and healthy so they can properly function, and many more reasons

What Are the Dangers If a Cat Does Not Drink Enough Water?

One of the biggest dangers of your cat not consuming enough water is dehydration. Dehydration is when your cat uses or loses more fluids than they take in, which creates an imbalance of water and electrolytes in the body. When this occurs, their bodies are unable to function properly.

Dehydration can be caused by more than just a lack of water consumption. It can be the result of medications, nursing kittens, or elderly cats with decreased mobility.

Health Issues That Can Cause Dehydration

Some of the Health Risks of Dehydration

  1. Serious electrolyte imbalances
  2. Reduction in the flow of blood and oxygen to body organs
  3. Accumulation of harmful toxins in the body
  4. Death

Besides the risk of dehydration, improper water consumption can lead to your cat lacking energy, poor organ functioning, and poor skin health, and increased risk for urethral obstruction in male cats.

How to Get Your Cat to Drink More

If you’re worried about your cat’s water intake, even if they’re not showing signs of dehydration, try one or more of the following tricks. Every cat is an individual, so not everything will work. Just be patient and diligent, do things gradually, and find whatever works best for your cat.

The Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu says, “Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” He clearly has never been around cats since they willingly resist it.

Add Some Flavor

Add a little bit of tuna, salmon, or clam juice to their water (use only those in spring water and not brine). Start off with a ¼ teaspoon per bowl and gradually increase till you find a mixture that works best for your cat. Ideally, for an average-sized cat bowl, limit to no more than a teaspoon per day. This is especially true if you are using clam juice or your cat has heart or kidney issues. You can also try low-sodium chicken broth (straight broth that does not include onion or garlic). The turkey bone broth powder below is safe for pets, but there are others available online as well. Just be sure that the powder is completely dissolved before giving your cat the water. It may be best to warm the water then mix the powder in so it dissolves easier. Then store it overnight, shake well, and serve!  

NOTE: We don't recommend adding flavoring to water used in water fountains.

Daily Boosters: Instant Turkey Bone Broth Liquid Treat with Turmeric for Dogs & Cats
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Switch It Up

Switch from dry food to wet. Cats are accustomed to getting most of their water from their food, so switching to, or adding wet food will help with water consumption. You can even add a bit more water to the canned food, to make it more of a gruel consistency (but don’t make it too soupy).

NOTE: Consult with your veterinarian prior to switching diets, especially if your cat has any medical conditions. Never suddenly switch your cat’s food. It must be switched over a period of about a week (longer for cats with sensitive systems) in order to avoid gastrointestinal upset. For example:
  • Days 1 and 2 – Give 75% old diet and 25% new diet
  • Days 3 to 5 – Give 50/50 of both diets
  • Days 5 and 6 – Give 25% of old diet and 75% new diet
  • Day 7 – 100% new diet

Moisten It Up

Some cats resist canned food or there are some on special diets that only come in a dry form. In these cases, you can add room-temperature or warm water or low-sodium chicken broth (straight broth that does not include onion or garlic.) to the dry food. Start with a teaspoon and gradually work your way up so that your cat can adjust. Also, let it sit for a few minutes so that the food can absorb the water. You can add canned food to the dry as well.

Chill It

Place a few ice cubes in your cat's water bowl. Many cats are fascinated by the sound and look of bobbing ice cubes, and will happily go in for a few laps.

To get a bit more mileage from this tip, make tuna, salmon, or clam juice ice cubes! Just add a bit of tuna juice (water from a can of tuna) or clam juice to some water and place the mixture in an ice-cube tray. Then use these cubes in your cat’s water bowl. (Note: Be sure to label this ice cube tray so you don’t inadvertently put the fishy cubes in your cocktails, or your kid’s juice. Yuk!)

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Get It Moving

Few things encourage cats to drink as much as running water. Pick up a cat water fountain, preferably one that lets a cascade of water fall from a small faucet. With any fountain, though, you'll want to keep it clean. Using small brushes helps, and make sure to clean the spout and motor regularly. All the fountains recommended below are dishwasher safe, but we still recommend running a brush through the spouts and the parts that can't go in the dishwasher. In this video, Preventive Vet team member's cat, Mazel, drinks from his fountain – the one complaint Mazel's human has with this fountain is the noise of the motor, but it doesn't seem to bother Mazel.

 


Fun Tip:
When your cat's in the area, you can turn your faucet on to a slow drip or stream for a minute to encourage them to drink.

Raindrop Stainless Steel Pet Drinking Fountain
stainless steel pet water fountain
PetSafe Drinkwell Pagoda Pet Drinking Fountain
PetSafe Drinkwell Pagoda Cat and Dog Drinking Fountain

Pioneer Pet Swan Pet Drinking Fountain
Pioneer Pet Swan Pet Drinking Fountain

cat drinking from water glass

Add More Bowls (and cups, glasses, and mugs!)

This is especially true if you have multiple cats, as the smell of another cat can discourage them from sharing the same water. But, generally speaking, it’s good to have multiple things for your cat to drink water from spread throughout your home to tap into a cat’s water wanderlust.

TIPS:

  • You will likely need to experiment with several different types and sizes of bowls. Cats tend to prefer, glass, ceramic, and stainless steel bowls over plastic. Plastic bowls are best avoided for regular use anyway. If they get scratched or have other imperfections, these can create perfect hiding spots for bacteria that could cause a bout of digestive upset or a case of cat chin acne if they're on the rim or inner sides of the bowls.

  • Choose vessels with wide bases, especially if your cat likes to play with their paw in the water and knock them over.
  • Cats tend toward bowls that are wide and shallow. This allows for them to drink without putting their whole head into the bowl. Additionally, wider bowls make it so the cat’s whiskers do not touch the sides and cause a condition called "whisker fatigue."

  • Completely fill the water to the top. Cats tend to show a preference for full bowls.

  • Try not to place the water bowl in high traffic areas in your home, near food bowls and litter boxes.Instinctively, cats don't like to eliminate near their fresh water supply, making water near the litter box less appealing. They also instinctively avoid bringing dead prey items to those fresh water sources to avoid contamination. So, moving the water bowl further away from the food bowl can sometimes increase their interest in drinking.

Scrub a Dub

Clean your cat’s water bowl daily to remove any unpleasant odors and potentially harmful bacteria. They should have fresh water in their bowls and glasses daily. It is recommended to avoid plastic dishes since they can be harder to clean and can harbor odors that may make cats not want to drink.

Change the Source

If your cat isn’t digging your tap water — hey, they’re finicky after all — try filtering it or switch to bottled water. The general concept is that if the water is good enough for you, then it is good enough for your cat. However, this may not hold true for distilled water. While using it once in a while is ok, regular use can potentially lower the pH of your cat's urine and make it acidic. When this occurs, there is an increased risk of your cat developing urinary crystals or stones.

There is even water specially made for cats called Cat Water. This may be a benefit for cats who suffer with urinary tract issues.

Do Not Give Milk to Cats

Cats, like many people are lactose intolerant. Therefore, providing milk for hydration isn’t the best option since it can cause gastrointestinal issues such as vomiting and diarrhea. Both of these issues can prevent your cat from drinking and can cause or worsen dehydration.

Location, Location, Location

Try to place the water bowl in a quiet place where your cat can drink undisturbed. Do not place in heavy traffic areas or near doors that are opened frequently.

Mix and Match

You may have to combine several of the above options and experiment with different ones to see what works best for your cat!

NOTE: Traveling creates a lot of stress for many cats. If you have found a water source and serving method your cat prefers, bring it with you if possible. Also, be aware that traveling can cause nausea and vomiting. If your cat has a history of travel issues or tends to be a stressed cat, consult with your veterinarian about medications to control nausea and vomiting.

Why Are Cats So Fussy About Drinking?

There are some different theories with regard to this topic.

cat drinking water from faucet

Like many of cats’ peculiar quirks, their drinking habits (or lack thereof) may trace back to their early days as desert hunters. These ancient cats would get most, if not all of their water from their prey, such as mice and other rodents.

Modern cats maintain these habits, making it potentially stressful for a human who wants to make sure their cat is getting enough water. And these days, cats get far less moisture from their food, considering that many are fed a dry-food diet containing only 6–10% moisture, a fraction of the moisture they'd get from rats and mice or canned food.

Another train of thought is that wild cats only drink from running water in order to prevent getting sick. So when water is sitting still in a bowl, they have an instinctual aversion to it.

There is also the theory that cats have learned, and prefer, running water or rainwater because it tends to be cooler.

The last, and very likely addition to any of the above, is that for cats, water is just pure entertainment. They love to spill it and splash it all over the place. And the added benefit is that they get to watch their human clean it up.

How Much Water Cats Should Drink

Typically, cats need between 3.5–4.5 ounces (about ½ a cup) of water per 5 pounds of body weight per day. If you have a 10-pound cat, they should be consuming between 7–9 ounces (about 1 cup) of water. The key word here is “consume,” since cats don’t need to get their water just by drinking.

A can of wet food is about 70–80% water. So if your cat is eating wet food, which is highly recommended, they might get between 3.85–4.4 ounces of water from a single can (an average 5.5 ounce can). That’s half their daily water right there.

Canned Cat Food

Wet food can be highly beneficial for many reasons. One big reason is that your cat is getting some of their needed daily water, which is particularly critical for cats with kidney disease, diabetes, or urinary tract issues. Additionally, canned food is higher in protein but lower in carbs. This a big benefit for diabetic cats. As you may recall from above, all of these health conditions can worsen dehydration.

If your cat is home all day, you might not actually see them drinking, but there are ways to tell if they’re not be getting enough water.

How to Monitor Your Cat's Water Intake

You can’t judge a cat’s water intake based solely on the amount of water you see them drink. If your cat is on a wet food diet, they probably won't have much need to drink additional water anyway. And when they do drink, it could just as easily be when you’re away from home or even when you’re asleep.

Instead of trying to catch your cat in the act, focus on monitoring the trends of the water level in their bowl at the end of the day (or beginning of the next). To be even more accurate, since many of us are not good at eyeballing things, try actually measuring the water (in ounces or cups) when you clean and refill their water bowls each day (which is recommended). Keep a log so that you can monitor their drinking trends. The advantage of knowing trends is that when things notably change you can seek medical attention for your cat before the situation worsens. Also, drinking too much can be concerning and a sign of diabetes.

Signs of Dehydration in a Cat

It can be hard to tell whether your cat is actually dehydrated simply by their water intake. Additionally, most cats do not have detectable dehydration till they are about 5% dehydrated. This basically means that your cat has lost 5% of their body water before you can tell dehydration is present. When cats are 10% dehydrated, they are very ill and most do not survive without intensive care once they reach 12% or more.

Degrees of Dehydration Guideline

5 to 6% dehydration – there is only a subtle loss of the elasticity of the skin. Skin will return back to position after tenting only slightly slower than normal. See how to "tent" the skin below.

6 to 8% dehydration – there is a notable delay in the skin tent, there is a delay in the return of color when the gums are pressed and the eyes may appear sunken.

10 to 12% dehydration – there is a complete loss of skin elasticity (skin doesn’t return back to normal), the gums are extremely dry, eyes are sunken, there may be signs of shock such as increased heart rate, cool or cold paws and legs, etc., and it is possible for alterations in consciousness.

12 to 15% dehydration – cats are in shock and death is likely without aggressive veterinary treatment.

It is important to know the indicators of dehydration. Check for these signs regularly, especially if your cat has other medical issues that can cause dehydration, which are listed earlier in this article.
 

Loose Skin

If you gently "tent" (pull up) a bit of your cat's skin over their shoulders, it should quickly return back to normal positioning once released. If your cat is dehydrated, their skin will slide back more slowly.

The “skin tent test” can be one of the best ways to check for dehydration at home. However, it isn’t perfect, as your cat’s “skin tent time” is greatly affected by their level of fat and muscle under the skin in the area where you performed the test, as well as the overall health of their skin.

 


Sticky Gums

Dry, tacky gums can be a sign of dehydration. If a cat's gums are pink, moist, and not "tacky" (sticky), then they're more likely to be well hydrated.

Capillary refill time (CRT) Gently press on the gums. The area pressed should turn from white to pink in less than 2 seconds. The CRT is delayed more than 2 seconds when cats are dehydrated.

Depression or Lethargy

Is your cat especially sleepy or lazy? Are they less likely to greet you when you come home? Are they less playful than usual? Pay attention to these changes in behavior.

Loss of Appetite

When a cat won’t eat, it is often an immediate signal that something is wrong, even if it’s not dehydration. If your cat refuses to eat for more than 24 hours, it’s time to go to the vet.

Vomiting or Diarrhea

Though not signs of dehydration itself, a cat that is vomiting or that has diarrhea will quickly become dehydrated.

Sunken Eyes

A dehydrated cat might appear sullen or drowsy, with sunken eyes or eyes that look somewhat “dull."

Elevated Heart Rate

Take a pet first aid course, or at your next vet visit ask your veterinarian or nurse to show you how to check and measure your cat’s heart and pulse rate so you know whether it is higher or lower than normal. This video shows how to measure these vitals, and while a dog is being used, it's the same method for cats.

 

 

Panting

Cats don’t often pant, but they might when overheated, which may go along with a case of dehydration.

Less Urination

Here’s yet another reason why you should scoop your cat’s litter boxes daily: So you can check for changes in urination (and defecation). Also remember that a cat that isn’t peeing might not be able to, which can be the sign of a fatal urethral obstruction.

Muscle Weakness

Muscles need calcium, sodium, and potassium to contract. Therefore when there is an imbalance in the electrolytes, muscles can become weak.


Treatment of Dehydration in Cats

If you believe your cat is dehydrated, encourage them to take in more water. If their dehydration is mild and their kidneys, intestines, and other organs are working normally (i.e., no prior or current signs of illness), then the additional water they take in “orally” may be enough to help correct the problem. However, if their dehydration is more advanced, or if they’ve got underlying disease or dysfunction with one or more of their body systems, then it’s time for a vet visit. Your vet can determine how dehydrated your cat is and help you get to the bottom of it.

They can also give your cat “fluids” — a balanced electrolyte solution. Dehydration isn’t just about an abnormality of water balance, as there are typically electrolyte imbalances, too. Fluids may be administered either subcutaneously (under your cat’s skin) or intravenously (directly into your cat’s vein), depending on how dehydrated and sick your cat is.

As with any type of care, the cost is highly dependent on where you live and the severity of the condition. Typically, you can expect for mild cases of dehydration to cost $150 to $300. The cost will be higher if additional testing and treatments are needed. For more intensive cases, that require hospitalization, it may cost over $1000.

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