Staying Hydrated: Your Cat’s Water Requirement
When we think of cats we often think about the old myth that cats hate water, but despite their specific preferences for the type of water and the container it is provided in, keeping your cat properly hydrated is an essential part of cat ownership. Moreover, hydration is crucial to your cat’s overall health and well-being. Domestic cats can be prone to dehydration and at risk for a variety of diseases including urinary tract and kidney diseases. This is primarily due to their lack of thirst drive, which prevents them from consuming enough water (Robbins et al., 2018). Cats have evolved from wildcats, and can persist in a variety of climates, including deserts. Like many desert animals, cats have evolved to obtain most of their water from the food they eat (Buckley et al., 2011; “Their daily water requirement,” 2014). Unlike dogs, cats do not have a strong thirst drive, and when they do drink water, they do not gulp it down in large quantities (“Their daily water requirement,” 2014). Cats can also be extremely picky about their water bowl, the freshness of the water provided to them, and may even demand running water. These factors can all make it hard for owners to ensure their cat is properly hydrated. Keep reading to learn more about your cat’s thirst drive and learn tips on how to keep them well hydrated to prevent health issues.
Where do cats get their water intake in the wild?
Our pet cats were domesticated from the wild cat (Felis silvestris) and more specifically, the African wildcat (Felis silvestris libyca). The African wildcat is found in Northern Africa and the Near East (Serpelle, 2013). The wildcats are found in many different habitats, ranging from forests, deserts, savannas, grasslands, and mountains, but are most commonly found in scrub desert where they feed primarily on rodents and rabbits (Yamaguchi et al., 2015). Modern domestic cats can and do survive in most climates worldwide. While cats are successful predators they also are considered a prey species due to their small size. Because of this, they spend a lot of time traveling up off the ground and will often adapt nocturnal behavioral patterns to avoid humans and other predators. Wild cats obtain most of the water they need from the prey that they eat, rather than finding a common water source. Finding a common water source would put them at additional risk of predation and as long as prey species are abundant, this is an unnecessary risk for them as they can sustain themselves solely off the moisture they receive from their prey (Lepczyk et al., 2015). This behavior has been passed down to our domestic cats who do not have a strong motivation to find and drink large amounts of water. Cats who did find a common water source preferred running water. This is thought to be an evolutionary adaptation to avoid disease. Running water is less likely to be contaminated with pollutants and bacteria than stagnant water.
How can I provide the recommended water intake for my cat?
Domestic cats need approximately 0.5-1 ounces of water per pound of weight daily (“Their daily water requirement,” 2014). Many cat parents regularly feed their pet cats dry kibble due to its convenience but one of the best ways to ensure your cat is staying hydrated is to make wet food a stable part of their diet. Feeding your cat wet food at least once daily can drastically increase their daily water intake. Cats that eat wet food not only take in more water due to the food itself, but also are stimulated to drink more water because of the increased protein and sodium in the food (Zanghi et al., 2018). Dry food only provides 10% water to cats, whereas wet food can provide 78% water (“Their daily water requirement,” 2014). When cats eat food that is high in moisture, this helps mimic the natural way that cats would intake water. Having higher protein food can also encourage cats to drink more water in addition to the wet food (“Their daily water requirement,” 2014). Some veterinarians will go so far as to say that any wet food is better than any dry food, regardless of price or quality. This is due to the higher risk of urinary issues seen in cats exclusively fed dry food. Cats who only eat dry food consume about 30% less water than cats fed wet food (Buckley et al., 2011). Recent studies have shown that cat diets with more sodium content help to encourage cats to drink more water and many wet foods contain higher amounts of sodium than dry food. This is why feeding your cat wet food not only provides a regular source of water intake, but also encourages additional drinking. Sodium content of 11.51-16/74 g Na/MJ was a sufficient amount to encourage drinking and not cause any additional health concerns (Hawthorne & Markwell, 2004).
How do cats drink water?
Cats use their tongue to lap water into their mouth and do so in a unique and fascinating way. When dogs drink water, they use the bottom of their tongue to make a scoop, and ladle the water into their mouth. When cats drink, they dip their tongue straight into the water, only letting the top, spiny part of the tongue touch the water briefly. Then, cats use inertia to get the water up into their mouths by quickly retreating their tongue, causing a stream of water to shoot up. Domestic cats are able to lap the water at a rate of four laps per second (Reis et al., 2010). Cats are so skilled at this that they often are able to keep their chin dry while they are drinking, unlike dogs who often get water all over themselves and the floor!
How do I encourage my cat to drink water?
Cats can be sensitive to certain smells and tastes, so to encourage your cat to drink more water it is important to make sure that the water bowl is clean and the water is fresh. Water bowls should be emptied, rinsed, and refilled at least daily, if not twice daily for especially picky cats. If your cat is hesitant to drink water out of the bowl you provide, you can give them a variety of options to see if a different material or shape of a bowl could help encourage more drinking. Some cats may paw at their water bowl or attempt to knock it over in order to better see the water, test the temperature, or just for fun! To prevent this, provide a ceramic or metal bowl with rubber on the bottom. The taste of the water itself can also be a hindrance, especially if you live in an area with chlorinated water. Providing an option of tap, filtered, distilled, bottled, cold or lukewarm water could give you an idea of your cat’s individual tastes. Some cats may be sensitive to stainless steel bowls because the lights can reflect off the steel and interrupt their vision making it harder to locate the water or to keep an eye on their surroundings. As prey animals, this could cause them to feel vulnerable while drinking, especially in households with other cats or dogs. Cats can also be prone to whisker sensitivity, which means deep bowls may cause them discomfort as they drink because their whiskers are hitting the side of the bowl. Offering a shallow bowl could offer a solution to this issue. Certain cats may prefer running water and enjoy drinking from cat water fountains rather than a static water bowl (Grant, 2010; Stella & Buffington, 2013). Cats may prefer running water faucets above all other options, and if this is a behavior you are OK with, turn on the faucet and let them drink away whenever you are near one (“Their daily water requirement,” 2014)! Multiple studies have shown that there is no overarching preference for all cats to a particular water source. Rather, it seems cats are very individualistic in their water preference (Wooding & Mills, 2007; Pachel & Neilson, 2010). Cat parents should be mindful of figuring out their cat’s water preferences and providing them their preferred method. If you have a multi-cat household, provide multiple water sources throughout the house and manage feeding time to reduce competition over this important resource and encourage healthy water consumption (Stella & Buffington, 2013).
What are some risks associated with dehydration?
Due to their lack of thirst drive, cats are susceptible to dehydration. Any cat that comes off feed and is not seen drinking water should be monitored closely. Cats can be especially prone to urinary tract diseases due to their lack of water intake, with 1.5% of cats being diagnosed with an issue (Grant, 2010). Cats with diabetes or kidney issues are at a much higher risk of dehydration, which could exacerbate existing conditions. Breeds such as Siamese, Persians, Abbysinians, and Himalayans are at an increased risk of kidney disease, and therefore their water intake should be monitored closely to ensure they are staying properly hydrated to prevent kidney failure (“Their daily water requirement,” 2014). If your cat has been diagnosed with urinary tract diseases, they should be encouraged to drink more water and be given wet food as a regular part of their diet. There are also prescription foods available through your veterinarian. These preventative measures would also hopefully prevent further urinary issues and will also reduce the risk of urinary crystals from forming in the urine. These crystals can cause severe blockages in the urethra that will require veterinary intervention (“Their daily water requirement,” 2014).
What to do if my cat is dehydrated, and how can I tell?
If all else fails, having a close relationship with your vet can ensure your cat is being properly monitored and treated for dehydration. Your vet office can provide subcutaneous fluids to your cat to prevent dehydration and the complications that arise from it. One quick and easy way to check your cat’s hydration is to gently pinch the skin between their shoulders or at the base of the neck. If the skin snaps back into place, your cat is well hydrated. If the skin remains loose, that is a sign your cat may be dehydrated (“Their daily water requirement,” 2014). You can ask your vet to show you this simple trick at your next visit. Other signs of dehydration include dry or sticky gums, lack of energy, lack of appetite, dry or sunken eyes, and less frequent or more concentrated urination. If you notice any of these signs of dehydration in your cat, you should offer the cat wet food and start monitoring their water intake. If your cat is not eating the food or drinking water, you should contact your veterinarian for further instruction. Because cats are small prey animals, they are good at hiding any signs of discomfort or illness. Outward signals that your cat is dehydrated could indicate a serious problem and untreated dehydration could cause a rapid decline in your cat’s health and put them at serious risk.
Cats are predators that have been able to inhabit many different environments. Under natural conditions cats will rarely visit a water source and will instead obtain most of the water they need from the prey items they consume. When they live in our homes, we tend to feed them dry food that can limit the amount of water they consume on a regular basis. This puts them at risk for dehydration, urinary tract disease, and kidney issues. To prevent health issues, cat parents should spend time learning their cat’s water preferences to ensure their cat is consuming enough moisture. Providing wet food for one or all meals can help provide enough water in your cat’s diet and provide a more natural intake of moisture. Some cats can also be picky about the freshness of water, water bowl shape and material, and location of the water bowl in the house. Cat parents should pay attention to their cat’s water preferences and take care to provide their cat with their preferred method of water intake to prevent dehydration and additional health concerns. If a cat is exhibiting signs of dehydration, they should be closely monitored for improvements and your vet should be notified if there are no signs of improvement. Cats are finicky animals who can definitely give their owners a hard time when it comes to discovering their preferences for water, but taking the time to get to know them will ensure a long and healthy life together!
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