Cats Have a Drinking Problem

Here’s How You Can Help

Cats have a drinking problem—a non-drinking problem, actually. Funny as that might sound, cats’ problem with drinking turns out to have serious health consequences.

Recent veterinary research shows a powerful link in cats between the most common form of Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disorder (idiopathic cystitis) and an exclusively dry food diet. The study also found that cats who have already had a feline urinary tract disorder appear much more likely to have a recurrence if they are fed an exclusively dry diet instead of a canned or raw diet.

Cats Who Eat Only Dry Food Are Probably Dehydrated

A cat’s natural diet is freshly killed meat, a diet that’s 70 to 90 percent water. By contrast, dry cat food is only about 10 percent water. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Science found that cats who eat dry food exclusively consume less total moisture than cats who eat canned or raw food.

And surprisingly, most cats who are fed a diet of dry food don’t drink enough water to make up for the low moisture content of that food. The Research Council showed this to be so, even among cats that have access to fresh water 24 hours a day.

This is surprising because it isn’t true of many other mammals. Dogs, for example, seem to adjust their water intake to take into account whether their food is high or low in moisture. But not cats. In the wild, cats get the majority of their water from food. In fact, adult cats fed a high moisture diet like raw fish can survive without drinking any water at all. House cats fed a dry diet do drink water, but research reveals that most don’t drink enough to make up for the water they aren’t getting in their food.

You Can Hydrate Your Cat with Healthy Canned or Raw Food

Does the NRC’s research indicate that we should feed our cats nothing but raw fish? No. This might keep house cats well hydrated, but it would lead to other health problems.

What’s a cat lover to do? When possible, transition your cat from a dry diet to a raw or high-quality canned food. Another simple, healthy way to increase your cat’s water consumption is to replace part of its dry diet with a high quality canned food that you feed to your cat twice a day.

Cats are carnivores, so look for canned or raw foods with the first ingredients that are high-quality meat, especially chicken or turkey. Good quality fish, beef, or lamb can provide variety, although these aren’t the ideal primary meat for most cats. (The amino acid profiles of chicken and turkey meat more closely match a cat’s nutritional needs.)

Canned and Raw Food Won’t Hurt Your Cat’s Teeth

Compare your teeth to your cat’s. A human’s teeth are perfect for grinding and chewing, but a cat’s sharp teeth are made for biting and tearing. Unlike humans, cats’ saliva doesn’t contain enzymes, so digestion doesn’t begin in cats' mouths, but in their stomaches.

The truth is that cats are designed to do exactly what our parents told us not to do: swallow food without chewing. The big chucks a cat swallows are broken down by the powerful muscles and digestive fluids of their stomachs.

From both a physiological and a biochemical perspective, there isn’t anything natural or healthy about a cat crunching dry food. Dry cat food seems to help a little in reducing plaque, but not much.

Recent large-scale research designed to evaluate the connection between diet and dental health indicates that dry pet food simply isn’t much help in preventing the development of gingivitis and periodontal disease.

The most important things you can do to keep your cat’s teeth and gums healthy are to brush her teeth several times a week and have your veterinarian clean her teeth about once a year.

Additional Ways to Increase Your Cat’s Water Consumption

Increasing the moisture content of your cat’s food is the most natural way to increase your cat’s fluid intake, but it won’t hurt to encourage your cat to drink more water, too. Here are some strategies that may work:

  • Try a water dish with a different shape. Some cats like shallow dishes. Other cats like deep bowls or cups.
  • Give her your personal water glass. Cats seem to prefer our water to theirs.
  • Try bottled or filtered water. Your cat may not like the taste of tap water.
  • Try moving her water dish away from her food or adding a second water dish away from her food. Some cats don’t like to drink water that’s near their food.
  • Try giving her unsalted chicken broth, fish broth or clam nectar once or twice a day.

Granted, some of these solutions may seem peculiar. Still it’s worth experimenting with them. After all, cats don’t have a reputation for being mysterious for nothing.

We’re not veterinarians. Mud Bay staff are well educated, and our writing is well-researched, but neither the advice of a Mud Bay staff member nor reading Mud Bay's written materials can substitute for visiting a veterinarian. We offer carefully chosen, natural solutions, but we believe that veterinary conditions should be diagnosed and treated by professionals.