Water intake is one of the most basic physiological responses and is essential to sustain life. The perception of thirst has a critical role in controlling body fluid homeostasis and if neglected or dysregulated can lead to life-threatening pathologies. Clear evidence suggests that the perception of thirst occurs in higher-order centres, such as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and insular cortex (IC), which receive information from midline thalamic relay nuclei. Multiple brain regions, notably circumventricular organs such as the organum vasculosum lamina terminalis (OVLT) and subfornical organ (SFO), monitor changes in blood osmolality, solute load and hormone circulation and are thought to orchestrate appropriate responses to maintain extracellular fluid near ideal set points by engaging the medial thalamic-ACC/IC network. Thirst has long been thought of as a negative homeostatic feedback response to increases in blood solute concentration or decreases in blood volume. However, emerging evidence suggests a clear role for thirst as a feedforward adaptive anticipatory response that precedes physiological challenges. These anticipatory responses are promoted by rises in core body temperature, food intake (prandial) and signals from the circadian clock. Feedforward signals are also important mediators of satiety, inhibiting thirst well before the physiological state is restored by fluid ingestion. In this Review, we discuss the importance of thirst for body fluid balance and outline our current understanding of the neural mechanisms that underlie the various types of homeostatic and anticipatory thirst.