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The Dangers of Water Intoxication and Implementing Water Safety Measures

For Health & Wellness Wednesday, we focus on the dangers of water intoxication which can happen more often in the summer months due to everyone swimming to beat the heat!

by Jamie McKay, CPDT-KSA

Keeping our dogs cool and comfortable in warm weather is important to all of us. Swimming and other activities involving water can be fun as long as safety concerns are acknowledged. Listed below are important considerations that every dog owner should be aware of.

Water Intoxication:

Water intoxication is a rare but dangerous condition in which excessive fresh water intake can cause electrolyte abnormalities, specifically low blood levels of sodium known as hyponatremia. Potassium and other electrolyte imbalances may occur as well. Dogs that ingest large quantities of water while swimming and retrieving and when biting at sprinklers and hoses are at risk. Over the top dogs that don't want to take a break may be more prone to water intoxication. Retrieving a bumper in water may be less risky than retrieving a ball as the dog usually keeps their mouth closed around the bumper versus open mouth when retrieving a ball. Other risk factors for water intoxication may include dogs with smaller body size and those with reduced body fat.

Water intoxication can be caused solely by drinking excessive amounts of water. Tush, a young seven pound Papillion owned by Monique Plinck, was entered in the 2014 Northeast Regional. After his Grand Prix run he drank some water. Within two hours, Monique noticed that he was trembling, unsteady on his feet and exhibited a decreased level of consciousness. Tush was rushed to an emergency vet where he was diagnosed with water intoxication.

Quickly establishing a diagnosis can be a life saver. As the dog's condition worsens, symptoms can include urinary incontinence, vomiting, restlessness, dilated pupils and the development of seizures. Treatment is directed at restoring normal body electrolyte balance and supportive care as necessary. Tush made a full recovery but subsequently had another episode. Monique worked with her veterinarian to calculate Tush's average daily intake of water. People may be surprised how little a dog may actually need. Tush's daily requirement is 1/3 of a cup. Given that, he only needs to ingest a cup to throw his electrolyte balance way off. His water intake is carefully monitored now and he has had no further episodes.

Salt water ingestion:

Gastrointestinal issues such as vomiting or diarrhea can occur when a dog ingests even small amounts of sea water but are usually self-limiting. Ingesting large amounts of salt water may cause blood levels of sodium to rise above normal,  a condition also known as hypernatremia. Signs of hypernatremia due to salt water ingestion include vomiting, unsteadiness, tremors and seizures. Immediate medical intervention should be obtained when hypernatremia is suspected.

Algae/Water Hemlock:

Salt water algae blooms, also known as red tides, produce toxins that can be ingested when sea water or contaminated fish and shellfish are consumed. Fresh water blooms of blue green algae can produce several types of toxins that are dangerous to the liver and central nervous system. Signs of toxicity may include lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, excessive salivation, pale gums and seizures. Avoid stagnant, cloudy, smelly and blue/green or pea soup colored water or water with obvious red algae blooms. If you believe your dog has come in contact with an affected water source, immediately rinse him off with fresh clean water so that he will not lick contaminated water on his fur or paws.

In 2015 a young Border Collie in Colorado passed away after chewing on water hemlock, an extremely poisonous plant common among wet meadows, swampy areas and banks of streams. It is more common in the northwestern and southwestern parts of the USA. Water Hemlock poisoning reports are usually associated with cattle. Dogs are not usually attracted to this plant and this is the only case I have seen reported. Water hemlock affects the central nervous system and causes seizures. The first signs of toxicity might be panting, drooling and muscle twitching.

If you suspect that your dog has ingested a toxic plant or toxins from algae, immediately transport him to an emergency vet. If possible bring along the plant itself or take a picture.

If you can't immediately reach a vet, call the ASPCA poison control center at (888) 426-4435. They are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A fee of $60 may be charged to your credit card.


Giardia is a common intestinal parasite that can be contracted from ingesting water contaminated with the parasite or infected feces. Leptospirosis is an infectious disease caused by a bacterium called Leptospira. The organism is transmitted in the urine of infected animals and can survive in the environment for long periods of time, especially in warm stagnant water.

Pool safety:

Not every dog is a natural at swimming and may need a little help or encouragement at first. Drinking chlorinated pool water can cause stomach upsets. Dogs should never be left unsupervised around the pool and must be taught how to safely exit the pool either by a ramp or stairs. A dog who falls in or just goes in the pool unattended and is then unable to safely exit the pool may panic and become fatigued if not discovered quickly and is at risk for drowning. Floating pool covers present a safety hazard. A dog that falls or jumps into the pool may find themselves trapped underneath the cover and even confused if they are on top of the cover. A disoriented dog may not be able to find their safe exit. Pool covers should be securely anchored over the entire pool to create a physical barrier.

Boating safety:

Life jackets, also known as personal flotation devices (PFD), should be worn by any dog who is travelling in a vessel on water. This includes boats, canoes, kayaks and paddleboards, especially when used in conditions where there are currents or rapids. In these conditions even strong swimmers may become fatigued and have difficulty maintaining buoyancy, increasing their drowning risk. Consider investing in a PFD for a dog that has a tendency to chase water birds. They may ignore your recall in the face of this distraction and find themselves far from shore.

Limber tail:

Limber tail is also known as broken or dead tail. Pointing and retrieving dogs seem particularly susceptible to it. The symptoms have a rapid onset and the dog may exhibit a droopy tail with little movement and discomfort when sitting or lying down. Risk factors include over exertion especially in a poorly conditioned dog, confinement in crates for long periods and most commonly from swimming in cold water. The condition usually resolves with rest and some veterinarians may prescribe an anti-inflammatory agent.

Swimmers Ear:

The shape of a dog's ear canal may make them prone to retaining water after swimming. Moisture creates an environment that supports the growth of yeast and bacteria which can cause infections. Breeds with floppy ears such as Cocker Spaniels and Golden Retrievers may be more susceptible than breeds with upright or prick ears. Allow and encourage your dog to shake off after his or her swim to release water from the ears. An ear drying solution may be used following your veterinarian's instructions.

Water play is an excellent way to keep your dog cool, happy and fit during the dog days of summer! A few simple precautions can help keep your pet safe and healthy.

The best treatment of water related concerns is prevention!!

Jamie McKay, CPDT-KSA and her husband Stephen McKay, CPDT-KSA own McKay9 Dog Training LLC in Harrison, N.Y. Jamie gained her early experience at the Humane Society of Westchester at New Rochelle providing training to enhance the adoptability of shelter dogs while teaching safe handling skills to volunteers. She has competed in agility and rally obedience. Jamie and Stephen are loved and owned by Shetland Sheepdog Derby and Border Collie Scorch, both of who compete in USDAA agility with Stephen and have recently welcomed Shetland Sheepdog puppy Tease into the family. Jamie can be reached at

Photo credits: Photo #1 Monique Plinck; Photos #2, 3 and 5 Michelle Cardone; Photo #4 Bonnie Boardman; Photo #6 Melanie Behrens

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