Contributed by: Dr. Megan Nyboer, Emergency Veterinarian

Many of our canine friends love their time in the water! Swimming, retrieving and playing in the pool or a river can be great for dogs, helping to keep their weight down and their muscles fit. However, just like in humans, there are some inherent risks for dogs that are exposed to water sources.

Blue-Green Algae Intoxication

Blue – green algae grows in lakes, ponds, and rivers throughout the summer months. It is a thick, brightly colored foam coating the water, often blooming in large numbers at once. This algae produces toxins known as cyanobacteria. Even a small amount of the toxin can cause shock, breathing difficulty, liver failure and death in dogs. Symptoms often progress very quickly, over minutes to hours.

Symptoms:

  • Wobbliness, weakness or collapse.
  • Nausea, excessive drooling or vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Pale or blue gums, heavy breathing.
  • Muscle tremors, rigid limbs or paralysis.

What to Do:

  • Immediately wash the coat with clean water.
  • If any symptoms are noted, seek emergency veterinary attention immediately.

What NOT to Do:

  • Do NOT let your dog, or any other dogs, lick the coat after exposure to algae water.
  • Do NOT allow the dog back in a contaminated water source, even if no signs are noted.

Prevention:
Some environmental sources of water used for recreation are closely monitored for algae blooms – pay attention to any warning signs near water. However, many water sources are NOT monitored. Pay attention to any water that has foamy, scummy, or thick covering, often with a bright green, blue or red color. Do not allow dogs off-leash in these areas, where they may be able to swim in the water.

Drowning

Drowning is a common risk while swimming and can occur one of two ways. The lungs can fill with water, causing suffocation and ultimately death. Some dogs may recover from the event initially, but develop fluid within the lungs several hours later. This complication is known as “dry drowning” and can be fatal.

Symptoms:

  • Signs of distress in the water, or going under water for a long period of time.
  • Gagging, coughing or vomiting up water.
  • Pale or blue gums, heavy breathing.

What to Do:

  • If your pet is fatigued or distressed, remove from the water immediately.
  • Place on his/her side with the head and neck extended, head lower than the body to promote drainage of water from the lungs.
  • Seek veterinary attention immediately.
  • Secure the water source to prevent other pets and children from falling in.

What NOT to Do:

  • Do not leave pet unattended as they may be confused and wander back to the water.
  • Do not fail to seek medical help because of initial recovery. Complications can still occur.

Prevention:
Most pets instinctively know how to swim. When they fall into a pool, however, they will swim to the nearest edge, rather than to the steps of the pool. It is a good idea to teach your dog where the pool steps are located. Pets should never have access to a swimming pool or body of water unsupervised. If you are boating, kayaking or paddle boarding with your dog, a doggie life jacket is a great idea.

Water Intoxication

Water intoxication is a rare but potentially fatal problem. It occurs when a dog ingests a large amount of water in a short period of time. Retrieving items thrown in the water, catching hose water, or swimming for many hours can all cause excessive water intake. This is quickly absorbed by the gut and causes salt levels to drop (hyponatremia), resulting in swelling of cells in the brain and organs. Water intoxication can be a quickly progressive and fatal condition.

Symptoms:

  • Bloating of the belly, retching or vomiting up excessive water.
  • Loss of coordination or stumbling.
  • Lethargy, dull mentation, changes in pupils.
  • Pale or blue gums, heavy breathing.
  • Collapse, loss of consciousness and seizures.

What to Do:

  • Seek veterinary attention immediately.

What NOT to Do:

  • DO NOT give your dog more water or offer any salt water.
  • Do not fail to seek medical help because of initial recovery. Complications can still occur.

Prevention:
It is important to monitor dogs that are very active in the water, and insist on frequent rest breaks. Be extra careful when water is rough, if your dog opens his/her mouth often in the water or dives to the bottom of the pool to retrieve items. Also, take care not to allow your dog to ingest an excessive amount of water from a hose or sprinkler. Dogs that empty their water bowl after hard play or exercise should be rested for a bit before refilling the bowl.

Salt Water Toxicity

Excessive intake of salt water can result in salt poisoning (hypernatremia). Initial signs of salt water toxicity include vomiting and diarrhea, but can quickly progress to neurological symptoms like loss of coordination, seizures, depression, and severe brain swelling. Hypernatremia, like hyponatremia, is potentially life threatening and immediate veterinary care is needed. If you take your dog to the beach, bring along fresh drinking water and offer it at frequent intervals so he/she will not be tempted to drink ocean water.