Too much of a good thing can be fatal
Playing in a familiar river, lake, or pool seems like a safe way to burn off some steam for any dog who is a strong swimmer. But, unfortunately, water can have a hidden danger that has nothing to do with its depth or tide. What some dog owners aren't aware of is that repeatedly ingesting water can result in water intoxication. Water intoxication, also known as hyponatremia, happens when too much water is consumed and causes the body’s sodium levels to drop, followed by water filling and swelling the brain, as well as other organs. 1
While it's most likely to occur from playing in deeper water, like diving to retrieve toys or sticks, water intoxication can also occur from simply playing with a backyard sprinkler or water hose. Initial signs of water intoxication in dogs can include excessive salivation, nausea, vomiting, lack of coordination, lethargy, bloating, dilated pupils, and lightened gum colour. Advanced signs of water intoxication can include seizures and coma. 2
Water intoxication can happen to dogs of all sizes, but smaller and toy-sized dogs are at a greater risk because their smaller bodies have to work harder to get rid of excess water than larger dogs.3 As such, it's extra important to keep an eye on small dogs that are active and have a high drive (small Terriers especially).
If you suspect your dog has water intoxication, call your vet immediately. Urgent and aggressive veterinary care is needed once water intoxication takes place. Emergency treatment usually involves delivering electrolytes via IV to restore balance, diuretics to reduce the amount of water flowing through the veins, and drugs to reduce swelling.4 Fast-acting veterinarians and technicians are required to provide a dog with the best odds of survival.5
With all of this being said, now that you are familiar with what water intoxication is, its signs, and the damage it can do there are ways you and your dog can safely enjoy some water fun. It's essential to take note of your dog's swimming style. Is his head above water or lower into the water while he swims? Does he swim with his mouth open? Interestingly, dogs bred to work in water tend to be mentioned less in water intoxication online discussions. This isn't saying it can't happen to them as it most certainly can, but it is interesting to see that breeds purposely bred to enter the water, causing as little disturbance as possible, tend to keep their mouths shut in the water as well. 6
The most important thing you can do as an owner to prevent water intoxication is to make sure your dog takes breaks. I know this can be tough, as any Doberman owner knows as I do that when you take a toy away before they are done playing, they can be pretty vocal, but it is in their best interest. Putting away the toy you’re tossing for a while and putting on a leash for a chill walk or hang by the deck works well. Break the water games into several shorter playtimes, and make sure you encourage your dog to relieve themselves of excess fluid on the dry land.
Try switching your ball for a flatter floating toy. This might help greatly by allowing him to close his mouth over the toy instead of a spherical toy that keeps the mouth partially open when retrieving. Try to avoid using toys that sink or encouraging open-mouth games with the garden hose.
Water is key to good health, and exercising in a lake, river, or pool can be fantastic for a dog, but too much of a good thing can lead to water intoxication. Taking regular play breaks, knowing the signs of water intoxication, and knowing exactly where the nearest veterinary emergency clinic can help prevent a potentially life-threatening emergency trip to the vet.
Please note that I am not a veterinarian nor am I an animal health care professional. This blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinarian advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding the condition and/or the safety of your dog.
Photos: Jacqueline Boychuk
1 Centennial Animal Hospital, https://www.centennialanimalhospital.com/water-intoxication/
2 Ibid., Centennial Animal Hospital
3 American Kennel Club, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/can-dogs-drink-much-water-dangers-water-intoxication/
4 Ibid., Centennial Animal Hospital
5 Ibid., Centennial Animal Hospital
6 Ibid., American Kennel Club