What to Do If You See a Dehydrated Animal
It’s summertime, and dehydration can set in quickly for humans and animals alike.
If you feel yourself drying out, though, you can get yourself some fluids — or head to the hospital, if necessary. Animals aren’t always so lucky. Be a hero this summer and help out those in need. If you spot a dehydrated animal, don’t assume that someone else will do something. Step up and take action. Whether you’re looking at a carriage horse, a dog, or a cat on a porch, you can be a friend to an animal.
What is Dehydration?
Dehydration is a serious medical emergency. If left untreated, it can lead to cerebral edema, which is swelling of the brain that eventually causes cellular rupture and cell death. It can also cause severe muscle damage, seizures, kidney failure, and, eventually, coma and death. Depending on when the condition is identified, it can often be rapidly reversed, but it’s important to be careful because dehydration can disturb the balance of electrolytes in an animal’s blood chemistry. As a result flooding an animal’s system with fresh water could cause more complications, not fix the problem.
Spotting Signs of Dehydration
The most obvious risk factor for dehydration is a lack of fresh, potable water. For animals, this can be a big problem. Dogs who are chained up or left in the car might run out of water or not have any to begin with. Other animals may accidentally or intentionally knock over their water dishes. Working hard in extreme heat can be a factor, whether an animal is hiking with human pals or pulling a carriage for tourists.
Signs of Dehydration From a Distance:
Dehydrated animals often look lethargic and droopy — if they were sunflowers, they’d be bending towards the ground with exhaustion. They may pant, splay their limbs, roll their eyes back, and show signs of difficulty breathing along with having sunken eyes. This isn’t just ordinary “I ran around the yard and had fun” fatigue, but something much more serious. On animals like horses or dogs with very short coats, you can sometimes see raised veins. The animal also may show signs of depression, such as lack of interest in what you are doing, along with any treats you might have.
You can find a lot of tell-tale signs of dehydration if you’re close enough to touch an animal. The animal’s lips and gums may appear pale, while her nose will be hot and dry. If you pinch the animal’s skin between her shoulderblades gently and lift it, it won’t snap right back into place like healthy, elastic, well-hydrated skin. Likewise, the animal’s mouth will be dry — and if you can take her temperature, it may be elevated.
What to Do if an Animal is Dehydrated
If necessary, get the animal off the chain, out of the sun, or out of a vehicle, and call animal control for help. If the animal appears vicious or potentially unstable, consider waiting for professionals. If you absolutely can’t wait, use a muzzle. Make sure that one or more bystanders witnesses the animal’s distress before you intervene in case the owner tries to start a dispute with you later, but if you’re the only one around, snap a couple of photos and then get to rescue detail, because there’s no time to wait.
If the animal is still mobile and responsive, provide a small amount of water and get her to a vet immediately. Don’t go overboard, even if the animal is extremely thirsty — too much water too soon can cause a condition called water intoxication. Be aware that dehydrated animals, like other sick animals, can become disorientated and agitated. They may urinate or defecate uncontrollably, snap at their rescuers, or behave irregularly. Even if an animal is known and trusted, don’t assume she’ll behave like she usually does.
At the veterinarian’s office, they’ll probably start fluids, which include a balanced mixture of electrolytes. Especially in the summer, veterinarians are used to seeing cases of dehydration and they can get animals set up very quickly on a fluid drip. If the animal’s temperature is elevated, which is an indicator of heatstroke, they’ll get her under cooling blankets or into a cooling bath to bring her core temperature down as quickly as possible.
Once staff are working on the situation, you can provide information about the circumstances. The vet’s office will take notes about where and how you found the animal. These notes can be used with documentation from the treating staff members to build an animal cruelty case.
Photo credit: Paul L. Dineen.