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Why All Dogs Aren’t Born to Swim

August 18, 2022 | General

  • It’s a myth that all dogs know how to swim adequately enough to stay afloat, and some breeds are at a disadvantage in the water due to their physique, making it difficult for them to stay afloat
  • When you first introduce your dog to the water, do so gradually and stay right with them
  • A fresh source of pure water is essential for dogs that are swimming, as consuming too much saltwater can cause serious illness and death
  • Many dogs enjoy swimming in lakes, rivers and ponds, but avoid those with algae present; algal blooms can contain cyanobacteria, a toxin that can cause severe illness and death in pets
  • If you have a pool in your backyard, install a ramp that your dog can use for an exit, and teach them how to use it; also install a fence around the pool area so they can’t fall in accidentally

If your dog enjoys swimming, this summer pastime can provide excellent exercise and mental stimulation. Some breeds, like Labrador retrievers and Irish water spaniels, were born for the water and are strong swimmers, but not all dogs enjoy the water. So the first step to taking your dog swimming is to be sure it’s something they want to do.

If your dog shows interest in swimming, the next step is keeping them safe. It’s a myth that all dogs know how to swim adequately enough to stay afloat, and some breeds are at a disadvantage in the water due to their physique, making it difficult for them to stay afloat.

Some Dogs Can’t Swim

Brachycephalic breeds and other short-muzzled dogs, top-heavy breeds and those with short legs, including bulldogs, pugs, dachshunds and boxers, often have difficulty swimming and may need assistance in the water, such as a doggy life jacket, along with close supervision. In a news release, Dr. Lori Teller, a clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, explained:

“Most dogs will make a paddling motion when in the water, but some are not able to propel themselves forward or even keep their heads above water … If your dog is not interested in swimming, don’t force it.

Never toss your dog in the pool to make it swim. For dogs that want to get in the pool but cannot swim, or if you have a dog that may be at risk of drowning, use a doggie life jacket. If your dog falls in or can’t swim, this will allow your dog to float in the pool until it can be rescued.”

No matter what the breed, when you first introduce your dog to the water, do so gradually, at a pace that builds trust and confidence and stay with them at all times. If your dog has negative experiences when being introduced to water (like being forced or thrown into water), they may fear all swimming opportunities for the rest of their life, so how you introduce your pup to water, initially, is very important.

Always let your dog set the pace, encouraging them to explore water safely and well supervised. If your dog is comfortable and moves around easily in the water, it’s a sign that they’ll likely be a good swimmer, but watch for signs of tiring. Even strong canine swimmers can easily become tired in the water, particularly if they’re a puppy or senior.

If your dog is swimming in a lake or other natural body of water, be aware of currents and steep drop-offs. You can attach a leash or long line to the life jacket (or to a harness) so you can pull your dog in if they get distracted or cannot reach the shore on their own. If you’re boating, be sure your dog is in a dog flotation vest in case they accidently fall overboard while the boat is cruising.

Be Sure Fresh Water Is Provided

A fresh source of pure water is essential for dogs that are swimming. You want them to stay hydrated so they’re not tempted to drink the water they’re swimming in, which can cause serious problems. Dogs that visit the beach can become sick, or even die, from consuming too much saltwater.

In fact, if your dog has ingested too much salt, he’ll likely experience increased thirst, which will prompt him to drink more water to compensate. As long as fresh water is available, the effects of salt ingestion can be reduced. However, problems can quickly arise if freshwater is not available, such as during a beach day when your dog may turn to drinking more and more saltwater in an attempt to quench his thirst.

“If your dog ingests a small amount of sea water while playing, it may develop a little diarrhea but otherwise be OK,” Teller said. “However, if your dog ingests large quantities of sea water, it can potentially be fatal. The increased level of salt can disrupt the function of multiple organs and lead to seizures and kidney problems.”

Also keep an eye out if your dog is consuming excessive amounts of freshwater, including pool water. Water intoxication is the opposite of saltwater poisoning in that the excessive amount of water dilutes bodily fluids, throwing off the electrolyte balance and reducing sodium levels in fluid outside of cells (extracellular fluid).

Water intoxication, or hyponatremia, causes sodium levels to drop to dangerously low levels. It’s a rare condition, but any dogs that love to spend time playing in the water (or drinking from sprinklers or hoses) are at risk.

Drinking from ponds and streams can also increase a dog’s exposure to potentially pathogenic bacteria and parasites, including leptospirosis and giardia, so it’s best to train your dog to come out of the water to rest and drink purified water you provide, versus allowing them to hydrate themselves from lakes or ponds.

Avoid Water With Algae

Many dogs enjoy swimming in lakes, rivers and ponds, but avoid those with algae present. Although some algae are nontoxic (and some species are superfoods), exposure to certain types of blue-green algae can cause life-threatening or fatal illness in pets. These algal blooms contain cyanobacteria, a toxin that can cause severe illness and death in pets and humans.

“These algae bloom most commonly in stagnant, shallow, warm water and produce some toxic substances,” Teller said. “It takes a very small amount of the toxins to cause serious illness or death in a dog.”

Backyard Pool Safety

If you have a pool in your backyard, install a ramp that your dog can use for an exit, and teach them how to use it. Be sure your dog is confident in knowing how to exit the pool, and install a fence around the pool area so they can’t fall in accidentally. Even if you consider your dog to be a strong swimmer, do not leave them unattended in the water.

When your dog is done swimming, give him a rinse with fresh water to remove chlorine and other contaminants from his fur — but be careful if you’re using a hose. “Be sure to run the water in the hose for a few minutes before wetting your dog,” Teller said in the news release.

“The water that remains in the hose between uses gets extremely hot, and if it contacts your dog’s skin, it can cause second- or third-degree burns. These are extremely painful, require intensive veterinary care, and can lead to permanent scarring.”

With proper precautions and, assuming your dog enjoys the water, swimming together in the summer can be an excellent hobby for both you and your pup. If your dog would rather stay on dry land, they can still enjoy water activities, such as splashing in waves on the beach, cooling off in a kiddie pool in your backyard or floating on a pool float with you.

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