Cats are finicky and can be tough to take care of. If your cat is hardly drinking, or has stopped drinking completely, that’s a big problem. So why do cats stop drinking, and what can you do to help one that does?
Why won’t my cat drink? It could be getting enough water from its food, it may not like its water bowl, it could be uncomfortable drinking from its bowl because of other cats or people, or it could be sick e.g. with tooth decay. However, cats prefer getting water from food, so if your cat is eating wet food it shouldn’t need to drink much anyway (just a few spoonfuls of water per day). If you’re concerned and spot signs of dehydration like sunken eyes, lethargy, loss of appetite and panting then talk to a vet. You can encourage a cat to drink more water by switching to wet food, adding extra water in your cat’s food, or buying a cat water fountain.
The guide below first looks at why cats drink less or stop drinking altogether. We’ll also cover how you can tell when a cat is dehydrated, and how to get a cat to drink.
Why Won’t My Cat Drink?
There are many reasons why cats might hardly drink any water, or even stop drinking completely. One, some or all of them may apply in the case of your cat. If you’re not sure which of them apply, talk to a vet.
Do Cats Get Water From Food?
Cats have evolved not to drink much water. They prefer getting water from food instead.
The reason is that meat is full of water. The average cut of meat contains around 60% water, although this varies based on several factors (the age and sex of the animal, whether the meat is processed or not, and so on). Wild cats the size of your housecat eat small prey anywhere from five to ten times per day. Each time they do, it’s as if they have a glass of water with their meal because they eat their prey whole. This means that they don’t just get the water from their prey’s muscle, but from its digestive system and, yes, even its bladder and kidneys. Over the course of a day all of this water adds up meaning that wild cats hardly need to drink. This has several advantages over drinking from a water source:
- Water sources freeze over in the winter, while prey is still available
- Water sources can carry bacteria and parasites, especially standing water; prey can contain parasites, but the cat would be eating anyway
- Wild animals get into fights over water sources if water is scarce
While your cat doesn’t live in the wild, it still retains this evolutionary adaptation. It would rather get the water it needs from its food than from drinking. That’s why cats that eat a diet of dry food don’t make up for that by drinking, even though they should, and end up with kidney problems.
What this means is that your cat may be getting enough water after all. Even healthy cats hardly drink any water throughout the day—so how much water do cats need? Cats need somewhere around 50ml of water per 1kg of body weight, which translates to around 200-250ml (7-8fl oz.) of water per day. If your cat gets this much water from its food, it won’t need to drink at all. Most cats eating wet food get enough that they only need to drink a couple of spoonfuls per day, which can make new owners worried that their cat isn’t drinking enough. But in reality, they’re perfectly fine.
Why Don’t Cats Like Water Bowls?
There’s also the fact that cats don’t like water bowls as a rule. Again, this comes back to your cat’s evolutionary history. Cats don’t like drinking from still water sources because in the wild, still water harbors poisonous algae and bacteria. Even though your cat lives at home now, this is still true, as old bits of food, cat litter or dust and dirt can get in a cat’s water bowl.
Your Cat Isn’t Comfortable in Your Home
There’s also the chance that your cat feels nervous and unhappy any time it tries to take a drink. This can discourage it from trying, which would add up over time to mean that your cat doesn’t get enough water. There are several reasons why your cat might not feel comfortable drinking from its bowl.
One is if your cat has only just arrived in your home. If that’s the case, your cat won’t have had time to spread its pheromones around to make itself feel at home. If your cat feels like it’s in neutral territory, it will also feel like it has to be ‘on the lookout’ for other cats or other animals, even if there aren’t any in your house.
Another potential issue is if there are other cats in your home. Cats can bully each other. One may attack another any time it goes to eat food or drink water. Your cat may also be uncomfortable around you or another family member for whatever reason.
Cats Avoid Drinking When Sick
Not drinking can be a sign of illness in cats. In particular, a cat may stop eating and drinking when it has a problem with its mouth like an ulcer, a loose or rotten tooth, gum disease or something similar. Conditions like these cause pain and eating and drinking makes that pain worse, so your cat may choose to stop doing so until the problem resolves itself.
Cats also stop drinking when they get very sick. When a cat is very sick, it becomes lethargic; lethargy is when a cat stops moving, eating, drinking, or doing anything. It would rather find somewhere quiet to lie down and rest.
How Can You Tell If a Cat Is Dehydrated?
There are three ways to tell whether a cat is dehydrated. One is by gathering external evidence, like by figuring out how much water your cat is ingesting both through eating and drinking. You can also look for the symptoms of dehydration in cats or perform tests to check.
Symptoms of Dehydration in Cats
Water is vital to your cat’s health. All of your cat’s cells, and by extension its organs, require water to function properly. You can therefore expect to see a wide range of symptoms both of different kinds and around the body. Obvious symptoms include:
- Sunken eyes. Your cat’s eyes won’t be as big and bright as usual. Instead, they’ll have a sunken look, which is where they seem to protrude less than normal. The area around the eye will also look sunken.
- Dry mouth. A healthy cat’s mouth looks wet because of saliva. A dehydrated cat doesn’t produce as much saliva because it’s running low on water. Its mouth will look dry instead of wet and shiny. If your cat normally drools, it won’t drool as much or at all.
- Panting. Cats only rarely pant compared to other pets. When they do, it looks like you would imagine. It’s always a sign that something serious is wrong rather than just being because your cat is too hot.
- Loss of appetite. Loss of appetite is a symptom seen frequently in cats near the end of life. Rather than look for food or water, the cat sequesters itself away somewhere safe where it can either recover or pass on without having to worry about predators.
- Lethargy. Lethargy is where a cat stops moving around as much. It’s commonly seen in very sick cats, no matter why the cat is sick.
Watch your cat for a while to see if it displays one or more of these symptoms.
Other symptoms are related to dehydration, but aren’t caused by it, like vomiting and diarrhea. The symptoms above are caused by dehydration, while vomiting and diarrhea cause dehydration in the first place. So while they aren’t symptoms of dehydration per se, be aware that your cat could become dehydrated if it frequently vomits or experiences diarrhea.
The Skin Pinch Test for Dehydration in Cats
The best way to tell if your cat is dehydrated is with the skin pinch test. You may already be familiar with this test because you can use it to judge how hydrated you are, too. The skin pinch test is where you pinch the skin on your cat’s neck/above its shoulders and see how quickly it springs back. If it springs back flat quickly, then your cat is fine. But if it forms a tent that takes a couple of seconds to become flat again, then your cat is dehydrated. You don’t need to pinch the skin to the point where it would hurt, only enough that you collect a little skin.
If your cat has lots of fur, you can still perform this test in one of several ways. Move your viewpoint so that you are level with the cat’s back and watch as the skin/fur tents. If it does, it will move back to position slowly. If you still can’t see, release the tent and then try to pinch it again immediately after. You can then feel if the tent has snapped back or not.
How Can I Get My Cat to Drink More?
It’s difficult to get a cat to do anything it doesn’t want to do. So, if your cat isn’t drinking or is experiencing dehydration, what should you do?
Talk To a Vet
If you ever suspect that your cat is sick, the first thing you should do is talk to a vet. That’s because:
- The vet can properly diagnose health conditions. It’s easy to accidentally diagnose your cat with a condition that it doesn’t have. If you then treat it for that condition, you’re treating the wrong thing, so it won’t get better. Your vet can also spot medical issues that you may not see.
- The vet has access to medications you can’t get over the counter. Things like better antibiotics, stronger pain meds and the like.
- The vet can monitor your cat’s health in the long term.
This is crucial when it comes to dehydration/not drinking because there are so many different causes. Your cat could stop drinking because it has rotten teeth, because of anxiety issues, because it’s seriously ill with something like cancer—or it may be getting all the water it needs from its food. The vet can tell you precisely what the problem is and you can then follow their advice to fix it.
You should also take your cat to the vet if it’s experiencing severe dehydration. The vet can either inject fluids under the skin or put your cat on an IV drip to quickly correct life-threatening levels of dehydration. If your cat needs intravenous fluid, it will stay at the vet’s office for one or two days and the vet will monitor its condition.
Switch to Wet Cat Food
If you haven’t already, consider switching to wet cat food. Wet cat food is better for cats for lots of different reasons, one of which is that it provides the water a cat needs. Other reasons to switch include that it’s closer to a cat’s natural diet, it’s less processed, and cats prefer it.
Before you make any major changes to your cat’s diet, talk to a vet. The vet can recommend high-quality wet foods for your cat. Another reason you should consult them is that cats can struggle to switch from one diet to another, an issue known as ‘neophobia’—the fear of new things, and in this case, specifically of new foods. Not all cats experience this issue but those that do will refuse to eat foods that they’ve never tried before.
You could also consider feeding your cat some snacks with high levels of water. While fruits are unsuitable for cats in lots of ways, they do at least contain a lot of water, so if you know your cat will eat fruits like strawberries or apples then consider feeding it some now.
Add Water to Your Cat’s Food
If your cat refuses to switch foods, then you can compromise by feeding it its old food, but with a little water added. This works with both dry and wet food.
For dry food, add in a few tablespoons of water until the kibble is softer. It should still hold its shape—it shouldn’t be mush—but it should break apart easier. Make sure to mix it because the water will initially soak the bottom layer and leave the top layer dry. This has the added benefit of releasing the smell of the food which your cat should find appealing.
As for wet food, since it’s already wet, you don’t need to add much. Add a tablespoon or so of water and again mix it around. Bear in mind that in adding water to wet food, you may not be getting more water into your cat’s diet, because it can leave the gravy/liquid at the bottom of its bowl instead of eating it.
Buy a Cat Water Fountain
Failing all that, consider buying your cat a cat water fountain. Cat water fountains are exactly what they sound like: water bowls that have a waterfall or fountain feature which keeps the water flowing. Cats much prefer running water over still water because running water is less likely to contain bacteria and parasites in the wild. Buying one will encourage your cat to drink more water than it currently does, whether it’s on a diet of dry food or wet.