You can lead a dog to the water bowl, but you can’t make him drink. It’s upsetting when you know your dog needs water but he or she stubbornly refuses to drink. Not being able to verbally communicate with our dogs is also one of the most frustrating aspects of my job as a veterinary technician. I can soothe a scared dog with a soft voice and some hugs, I can calm a nervous dog with a couple of reassuring pats and a positive tone. But I can’t make a dog understand just how important it is that he or she drinks.
A healthy body needs water and a sick body trying to heal needs to be properly hydrated. Organ failure, hypotension (low blood pressure), seizures and electrolyte imbalances resulting in heart arrhythmias are a few of the conditions that can result in severe dehydration.
A dog can only survive for about three to four days with no water intake. If you haven’t already taken your dog to the vet by early afternoon of the second day of not drinking, you should do so right away. Dehydration can be classified as mild, moderate and severe. Dehydration can also worsen rapidly so the problem should be addressed by you or your veterinarian right away even when mild.
How do you know if your dog needs more water?
1. Signs of mild dehydration in dogs
Lethargy: Lack of energy, lounging around more than usual and not wanting to go out or play as they usually do can be a sign of dehydration.
Drooling: Any abnormal drool coming from your dog’s mouth is considered hypersalivation. Hypersalivation occurs as your dehydrated dog attempts to keep from overheating. Unfortunately, drooling worsens your dog’s dehydrated or “dry” condition.
Tacky mucus membranes: The gums are mucus membranes. Lift up your dog’s lip and feel the gums. Well hydrated gums should be moist enough that you can easily glide your finger across them. If you can’t easily glide your finger across them they are tacky, and this is a sign of mild dehydration.
Dry nose: In my lifetime of meeting and spending time with myriads of dogs I have seen that not all healthy dogs have moist noses all of the time. Feel your dog’s nose frequently and get to know your dog’s “normal”. Ideally a dog’s nose should be slightly moist. A dry nose may imply dehydration but may be normal for some dogs.
Panting: Panting also worsens the state of dehydration as dogs lose water through panting.
A dehydrated dog may not exhibit all of the signs listed above.
2. Signs of moderate dehydration in dogs
Dogs with moderate dehydration may exhibit the signs seen in mildly dehydrated dogs as well as some of the following.
Decreased appetite: Dogs who are moderately dehydrated often don’t want to eat.
Slow skin turgor: Skin turgor refers to the elasticity of the skin. The skin turgor test is done by pinching gently and pulling up the skin on the nape of your dog’s neck. In a well hydrated dog the skin will snap back to normal when you let go. In a moderately dehydrated dog the skin will slowly return to its normal place. It is a good idea to practice on your dog when he or she is feeling well to get an idea of what normal skin turgor is.
Dry mucus membranes: If your dog’s gums are dry, he or she is probably moderately to severely dehydrated.
Thick, sticky saliva: As the dehydration progresses the saliva becomes sticky and thicker than usual.
Sunken appearance to the eyes: When moderately or severely dehydrated the tissue behind the eye shrinks causing a sunken appearance to the eye.
Signs of severe dehydration in dogs:
Severe dehydration is a veterinary emergency. If you suspect your dog is severely dehydrated take him or her to a veterinarian immediately.
Many of the signs of mild or moderate dehydration will still be present in the severely dehydrated dog as well as some of the signs listed below.
Vomiting: Vomiting is caused by dehydration and also causes dehydration. Every time your dog vomits they are losing more fluids, worsening their condition.
Disclaimer: This content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your vet for health decisions. Learn more.
Diarrhea: Some dogs with severe dehydration will have diarrhea. With each bout of diarrhea more fluid is lost causing further dehydration.
Very slow or absent skin turgor: When the skin is gently pinched and pulled up at the nape of the neck it will snap back into place in a well hydrated dog. As your dog’s dehydration gets worse the “snap back” will be replaced with a slow return of the skin, growing steadily slower until it is absent and the skin stays “tented”.
Red or pale gums: Instead of a healthy pink the gums may be red or pale in a severely dehydrated dog.
Ataxia: Weakness and stumbling when walking and difficulty getting up are a sign of severe dehydration.
What to do if your dog is dehydrated
If you think your dog is mildly dehydrated, think about why that may be.
Was your dog out in the yard on a hot day and ran out of water? Was your dog running around like a maniac at the dog park and hasn’t had a chance to rehydrate yet?
If so, offer your dog water. If your dog is worked up from playing hard offer him or her multiple small drinks of water as too much at once may cause vomiting You want to avoid vomiting as it worsens the dehydration and puts your dog at risk for aspiration pneumonia.
If your dog drinks and doesn’t vomit they should be able to rehydrate themselves fairly easily.
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If your dog refuses to drink, or you’re not sure why they became dehydrated in the first place, you should put in a call to your vet and schedule an appointment. Let your vet know of your concerns so that they can get you in quickly.
If you suspect that your dog is moderately dehydrated call your vet and let them know you are very concerned, especially if you can’t get your dog to drink. If your dog is drinking without vomiting and is still active, you can wait a day or two to be seen, but the underlying cause of the dehydration needs to be determined and treated.
If your dog has signs of severe dehydration take him or her to a veterinarian immediately. He or she dog will needs to be rehydrated with IV fluids administration to prevent organ failure, electrolyte imbalances and other serious health issues.
So why isn’t your dog drinking and how can you get water into him or her?
There are many reasons why a dog won’t willingly drink water including oral pain, throat pain, illness, nausea, or emotional distress.
Illness: Certain health issues, urinary tract infections for one, will decrease your dog’s drive to drink.
Nausea: When nauseous a dog may lick their lips and swallow a lot. They won’t eat and may turn their nose away from offered food. If your pooch won’t drink due to nausea you should take them to the vet to find out what is making them nauseous. Your vet will rehydrate your pooch with IV (intravenous) or subcutaneous (under the skin) fluids and give them something for nausea.
Oral pain: A foreign object lodged between teeth and gums, the back of the mouth or cheek will cause pain. A tumor, wound or ulcer in the mouth can also cause pain. Unknown trauma causing a broken tooth or jaw are also possibilities.
Throat pain: Foreign objects can become stuck in the throat. Esophageal (the esophagus is the muscular tube that takes our food into our stomachs) foreign bodies are fairly common.
Other causes of throat pain include tumors, wounds and ulcers.
Emotional distress/anxiety: Just like us, dogs sometimes become despondent and refuse to eat or drink. This can happen when a canine companion of theirs or one of their human family members dies.
Also, some anxious dogs may refuse to drink when subjected to stressful situations, such as moving to a new house, taking in a new family member, canine or human, or turmoil in their home.
If it seems that the reason for your pooch’s refusal to drink is emotionally based, and no success is met on your own or with your vet, ask your veterinarian to refer you to a behavior specialist. Canine behaviorists deal with this sort of situation more often than a general practitioner.
Can I force my dog to drink water?
There are things you can do to encourage your dog to drink. Please never force feed a dog. Forcing food or water on a dog is dangerous.
When water is forced into a dog’s mouth it may end up in the trachea (wind pipe) that leads to the lungs instead of the esophagus (muscular tube that takes food to the stomach). When water or food enter the lungs it can cause aspiration pneumonia. This pneumonia may clear up easily with antibiotics or it may become serious requiring hospitalization, sometimes resulting in death.
Appropriate methods to encourage water drinking
1. Location of water bowls: If your dog is not feeling well or is the anxious type they may appreciate a quiet, private place to drink. Pick a place they can access easily and where they feel safe. Show them the new spot, keep a bowl at the old spot too just in case. If your dog is arthritic or has other mobility issues place multiple water bowls throughout your house for them.
If you have multiple dogs or other animals in the household make sure they are allowing your sick dog to drink and not bullying them at the water bowl.
Some dogs want company when eating and drinking, others would rather you go away.
2. Type of water bowl: Dogs are not typically picky about things like what material their bowl is made of, but everyone is an individual. If your prince or princess is the picky type, or you’ve noticed a preference for one bowl over another it is worth a try to find just what they like.
3. Temperature of water: Some dogs may only drink cold water, others may not like it too cold.
4. Ice cubes: A lot of dogs like to crunch on ice, and sometimes when a dog won’t drink, they will lick at ice cubes.
5. Mix water in with their food– Feeding canned food or mixing water into their dry food s a good way to increase your dogs water intake.
6. Syringe feeding: Some dogs will drink from a syringe. They don’t want to drink enough to drink on their own, but their reluctance to drink is not so great that they won’t swallow what is safely placed in their mouth.
To do this fill a syringe with water and offer it to your dog. Let them sniff it, place a drop or two on their tongue near the front of the mouth. If they seem to like it and swallow try another drop or two. They may start to lick at the syringe tip as you slowly push more drops onto their tongue. Make sure their head is positioned so that the nose is down. This is to ensure that water not swallowed will roll out the mouth and not down the throat possibly causing aspiration pneumonia.
If your dog isn’t readily drinking from the syringe tip, try placing a few drops in their cheek pooch. Pull out the cheek, insert the syringe into the “pocket or pooch” of the cheek. Feel with your finger to make sure the syringe tip is in the pocket, between the cheek and the outside of the teeth, and not in the mouth, on the inside of the teeth. If you are not sure of the proper location, please take your dog in to the vet and ask them to show you.
Once in the cheek pooch place a few drops of water and give your dog a chance to swallow. If they swallow repeat this again and again. You will naturally increase the amount you place in the cheek pooch if your dog is readily drinking. Be aware of how much you are giving your dog with each squirt and don’t go overboard. Make sure they are swallowing a reasonable amount comfortably and stop when they turn away. Be sure that any water they don’t swallow is able to run out of their mouth.
7. Electrolyte supplements: Your veterinarian may request that you attempt to get something other than water into your dog. There are certain electrolyte supplements for dogs and some liquid diets they may recommend. If you have any products you would like to try please check with your vet first. You want to make sure the product is safe for dogs in general, and your dog in particular with regards to their potential disease process.
In general it is recommended that a dog drink 1 oz or 1/8th of a cup of water per pound per day. So a 10 pound dog will need 10 ounces or 2 and 1/4 cups of water a day. This is a rough estimate as many factors come into play, such as how hot your dog’s environment is, the amount of water in your dog’s food, how much your dog pants as they lose water that way and whatever other losses they have. Losses of water include urination, diarrhea, vomiting and panting.
Dogs with certain disease processes may require more or less water than is typical. For example, dogs with heart disease have to be careful not to take in too much water. Dogs with Cushing’s disease may need extra water. Please let your veterinarian guide you as to how much water your dog needs.