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10 Vet Tips for How to Get a Sick Cat to Drink

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Up to 70% of a cat’s body is made up of water. (1) Without the proper amount of water, all bodily functions are compromised. But how to get a sick cat to drink water? There isn’t one simple answer.

Sick cats often don’t eat and drink as much as they should due to pain, nausea or other disease-related changes. This can lead to a snowball effect whereby the cat feels sick so it doesn’t drink water causing it to become sicker and making it even less likely to drink water. 

Since getting a sick cat to drink is so difficult, the best way to get them to voluntarily take in more water is to include it in their food. Focus on treating any illness that’s causing a decreased appetite and consider using appetite stimulants.

When Should You Try to Get Your Sick Cat to Drink?

Cats occasionally suffer from a short-term mild illnesses such as diarrhea caused by a change in diet. A cat might become a bit nauseated and not want to eat and drink as much as normal. 

It is reasonable to try to get your cat to drink in cases of mild illness that has been going on for 24 hours or less. 

If your cat has multiple symptoms including not eating, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, changes in breathing, hiding, coughing, sneezing, etc. the situation is more serious. If your cat has not wanted to drink and/or eat for more than 24 hours that’s also a bigger concern. 

It’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to get them to drink enough to make a difference. And even if you did, drinking alone will not help the underlying problem. It’s best to take your cat to a veterinarian in these cases. 

After your cat has seen the vet, you get some inspiration from my tips to encourage your cat to drink more water…

My 10 Best Tips to Get a Sick Cat to Drink

1. Identify and treat the underlying illness

Drinking water is rarely enough to make a sick cat healthy. Don’t waste a lot of time trying to force your cat to drink! You must first identify the underlying problem and then give them the best-known treatment. 

Your veterinarian will likely want to run some tests after they’ve reviewed your cat’s history, age and lifestyle factors. Most sick cats will need to have blood tests, urinalysis and sometimes x-ray imaging. After the preliminary results are in, additional tests may be needed to make an exact diagnosis. 

The goal is to cure curable diseases and manage incurable diseases. Once treatment has begun, hopefully, your cat will start drinking and eating normally without a lot of extra effort from you.  

2. Have your vet administer subcutaneous fluids

When a cat is sick and dehydrated, vets will often give them intravenous fluids to help them feel better. A mildly dehydrated cat can be treated by injecting the fluids under their loose skin so it absorbs over the next few hours. 

Cats benefit from getting rehydrated without the stress of syringing water by mouth. Subcutaneous fluid administration can sometimes make a cat feel better enough to start to eat and drink on their own. 

tabby and white cat drinking from a water bowl (how to get a sick cat to drink)

3. Use anti-nausea medication

Nausea is a feeling of sickness in the stomach, often with the urge to vomit. Many disease processes lead to nausea in cats. And when a cat is nauseous, they don’t want to eat or drink.

The best approach to relieving nausea is to treat underlying problems. But sometimes that’s not enough. Fortunately, there is medicine to reduce nausea in cats. 

Some of these medicines act on the brain and some act on the stomach. Many come in an injectable form so you don’t have to “pill” your cat when they already feel like they’re going to vomit. 

Ask your vet if they think your cat could benefit from anti-nausea medicine. 

4. Treat pain adequately 

Pain comes in many forms from gastritis/stomach pain to arthritis pain. Even low levels of pain can result in decreased appetite and thirst.

It is hard to identify pain in cats unless you know what to look for. Some very smart researchers have found a way to systematize cat facial expressions in order to assess their pain level. You can read more about this at felinegrimacescale.com.

You should ask your veterinarian whether your cat needs treatment for pain. Pain meds come in injectable and oral forms so don’t worry if you can’t give your cat a pill. 

There are other ways to treat pain in cats besides drugs. Some options include therapeutic laser, ice and heat therapy, hydrotherapy, acupuncture and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). 

5. Use appetite stimulants

If your cat is eating as much as they need, it’s less likely they will develop dehydration.

Once you’ve gone through the first four steps on this list, you’ve made a good start but what if your cat still isn’t drinking or eating as they should? Now is the time to consider using appetite stimulant medication. 

Vets often prescribe cyproheptadine or mirtazapine for cats who need an appetite boost. 

Mirtazapine is available as a transcutaneous gel that you apply to the furless part of a cat’s ear and it is absorbed through the skin. This medicine (Mirataz®) is tested and labeled for cats. In my experience, it makes a big difference for more than half the cats who use it. 

6. Offer food with high water content 

This is the number one way to get your cat to take in more water. Feed them a diet consisting of 100% wet food. You should make the change gradually over a couple of weeks, if possible. 

Researchers found that cats who ate only wet /canned food took in significantly more water than cats who ate only dry food or cats who ate dry+wet food. (3) 

Cats just don’t drink enough water to make up for the moisture that’s missing from dry food. 

7. Manage stress

Many pet cats tend to eat and drink less when they are stressed. The most common cat stressors include noise, changes in the household and other cats. 

Make sure your cat has a quiet place to rest where they can stay partly hidden but you still have easy access to them. An open-topped cardboard box placed on its side with a towel for bedding works great. Avoid allowing your cat to hide under or behind furniture as that can lead to worsening stress and illness. 

black and white cat resting in a cardboard box

Provide a litterbox for them nearby, preferably one that is not used by the other cats in the house. Scoop out liquids and solids at least once a day and do a complete litter change at least weekly. 

Place their food and water dishes near their box bed. Make sure to empty and clean the bowls daily with soap and hot water. And keep in mind some cats will eat and drink more if you pet them-so give it a try!

Finally, be sure to give them some quiet time each day. You might be trying to help, but it’s super stressful for a cat to be examined, medicated and force-fed water or food. Give them a break in between necessary interventions.

8. Add flavoring to the water

You can try offering a water bowl with flavoring in addition to your cat’s regular bowl of plain fresh water. You can try adding the water drained from a can of tuna or low-sodium chicken broth.

Another good option is ProPlan® Hydra Care™ feline hydration supplement. The product comes in a sealed pouch that contains the thin gravy consistency liquid. Most cats love the flavor of it. The advantage of using Hydra Care over other water additives is that it contains nutritional osmolytes to increase water absorption at the cellular level.  [click on the image to view the product on Amazon.com]

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9. Offer multiple water sources

If your cat walks around a large house all day, try placing a water dish in their favorite places. Make sure water is available on each level of the home, too. 

You can try different types of water dishes from wide and shallow to deeper and more bowl-shaped. Some cat owners have better luck using a wide dish that doesn’t touch the whiskers while the animal is drinking. 

Cat water fountains work well for many cats. They need a while to get used to them but the flowing water is enticing to them. Make sure you disassemble the fountain and wash it with hot water and soap every few days.

Here’s a cat water fountain that works well. [Click the image to view the product on Amazon.com]

cat water fountain

10. Administer food and water slurry with a syringe

Force-feeding water and/or food should be sort of a last resort. It’s very stressful for cats and you can cause more problems than what you’re solving. 

Discuss force-feeding with your vet before you try it. It’s often better to use a mixture of wet cat food with a bit of extra water added than force-feeding plain water. The heavier texture decreases the risk of the cat breathing water into their lungs. 

But you still have to be very careful. Especially if your cat is weak or has decreased mental alertness. They can easily aspirate food or water, leading to aspiration pneumonia.

How Much Water Does a Cat Need to Drink?

Normal water intake for a healthy cat depends on several factors including the type of food they eat, age, exposure to elements, health status and body size. In general, cats who eat some portion of dry food drink more water than cats who eat strictly wet food. 

Average 10-pound healthy cats eating dry cat food would be expected to take in 150-200 mL of water per day. That’s equal to about 1/2 to 1 cup of water. Water intake may be more or less, depending on individual factors.  

Cats who eat 100% wet food diets are expected to drink little water since the food provides most of the water they need. 

When a cat is sick, they may be losing more water than normal via urine or stool. Veterinarians consider these additional losses when calculating how much fluids or water a cat needs. Consult your cat’s vet to see if the kitty needs more water than a healthy, average cat. 

Summary

Getting a sick cat to drink water is challenging. You must diagnose and treat underlying diseases, nausea and pain first. Try to get them eating and the drinking part will often take care of itself. Feeding a diet of 100% wet food is enough to meet the water needs of most cats. 

Since each cat is different, you should consult your veterinarian for the best approach to upping their water intake.

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References

  1. Greco, D. S. (1998). The distribution of body water and general approach to the patient. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, 28(3), 473-482.
  2. Kane, E. D. W. A. R. D. (1989, August). Feeding behaviour of the cat. In Nutrition of the dog and cat. Waltham Symposium (Vol. 7, pp. 147-158).
  3. Xu, H., Greco, D. S., & Zanghi, B. (2014). The effect of feeding inversely proportional amounts of canned versus dry food on water consumption, hydration and urinary parameters in cats in World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings. Cape Town, South Africa.

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