Keep Swimming Safe and Fun for Dogs

A hot summer is predicted ahead and many of us in Vancouver are planning to stay cool with our canine companions at our nearby beaches, lake and rivers. Those lucky enough to have backyard pools have likely already put them to good use.

Before we set off for the water this summer, we have to remind ourselves that everyone, including dogs, can drown and to take the necessary precautions to prevent such a tragic event from happening. The keys to water safety for dogs are prevention, preparedness and awareness.

I would like to share three tragic stories that have occurred with our own patients here at Amherst Veterinary Hospital. Through these stories I hope to highlight how quickly and unexpectedly drownings can happen with our pets.

The first involves an elderly Springer Spaniel. He had lived in the same house with the same backyard pool his whole life without incident. One day, his owners let him out into the back yard as usual. However, with his elderly age and poor vision he must have unknowingly wandered too close to the pool and fell in without anyone seeing. His owners found him later deceased in the pool.

The second is a story of a 15 year old small breed dog that was walking along the docks in False Creek with his owner. It was dusk, so the lighting was not good and the dog fell in. Given his age and other health conditions he was not able to stay a float and sank under the water immediately. This dog was under the water for less than a minute when his owner pulled him out; CPR was performed and the dog coughed up a large amount of water and started breathing within 30 seconds. He was at the nearby veterinary emergency clinic within 15 minutes of the incidence. Initially this dog stabilized but started to decline with increased breathing distress and progressive, severe lung edema several hours later. This unfortunately is not an uncommon complication seen post drowning and the dog was humanely euthanized.

The final story is of a young, athletic dog that was out hiking in the nearby mountains with his owners. He was off leash and was a seasoned hiker. He strayed off the trail and jumped into a running body of water. The current was unexpectedly strong and it swept him away very quickly. The owners were not able to get to him before he drowned.

These are not meant to be alarmist stories; fortunately pet drownings are rarely seen at Amherst Veterinary Hospital but when they do happen they always happened very quickly, even with the owners close by.

Hopefully the following preventive strategies will help to avoid any drowning incidents this summer.

No dog should be given unsupervised access to a backyard pool, neighborhood pond, creek, or any substantial body of water. Swimming pools are best fenced off for safety. If that’s not possible, they should be equipped with alarms that sound when the surface of the water is broken by a child or pet falling in.

Teach your pet what to do when they are in the pool. Dogs may not understand the idea that the steps are only on one side, and may tire and drown trying to crawl out the other side. If your pet likes to swim, work with him in the pool to help him learn where the steps are, so he can get out easily. Tip: Put contrasting paint or tape on the fence behind the steps to give your dog a visual clue he can count on.

swimming dog stick

Before letting your dog swim in any natural surroundings, survey the area for safety. Rivers and oceans can change frequently; an area that was safe for swimming one visit can be treacherous the next. Consider currents, tides, underwater hazards and even the condition of the water. In the late summer, algae scum on the top of standing water can be toxic, producing substances that can kill a pet that swallows the tainted water. If in doubt, don’t let your dog swim there; better safe than sorry.   Dogs don’t know the unexpected hazards of a body of water; most dogs love the cool feel of water, especially on a hot summer hike. Even when it’s dangerous they will run in without hesitation. Know the hazards before you throw a stick into the current for the first time.

Obedience training is extremely important. Your dog should come when called, even while swimming, so you can call him back before he heads into deeper water or stronger currents. Emergency shortcut: Always carry extra retrieving toys. A dog who’s heading out into a dangerous area after a ball or stick can often be lured back to shore with a second item thrown closer. It’s no substitute for training, but it could save your dog’s life.   If your dog isn’t much of a swimmer, is older or debilitated, get them a personal flotation device. These are especially great for family boating trips as most have sturdy handles for rescue if a pet goes overboard.

dog life jacket

I hope these tips will keep your dog safe in the water while having fun this summer.

Dr. Loretta Yuen, D.V.M


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