Last year, Susan was poolside at her home in Morgan Hill, California, tossing a ball for her water-loving Papillon, Kinetic. The 3½-year-old dog was a top-ranked agility competitor, with whom Susan planned to compete at elite agility events around the globe this year. Susan routinely cross-trained the little dog in the pool to build her muscle strength. Kinetic had just learned how to leap straight into the pool, and absolutely loved diving into the big blue expanse for her toy.
Susan was always careful to prevent Kinetic from overexertion; the dog’s name reflected her exuberant attitude about everything she did. So after the usual 20 minutes, Susan called a time-out for Kinetic to rest.
A half-hour later, Susan found her dog motionless on the couch. Kinetic was so lethargic and weak that her head bobbed and she urinated uncontrollably when Susan picked her up. In the car on the way to the emergency vet, things got worse: Kinetic started to foam at the mouth, her lips turned blue, and she passed out, lapsing into a coma from which she would never awaken.
As the veterinarian did bloodwork, noting that her sodium-potassium levels were off, Kinetic slipped even further away. Her brain started to swell, and her organs began to fail. At 2 am, the veterinarians took Kinetic off the respirator.
In the space of six hours, Kinetic had gone from being an active, vibrant, butterfly-eared blur to a memory. “She was fine,” Susan says, still in disbelief. “We didn’t do anything excessive, and she wasn’t exhausted. I had no clue that this could happen.”
The culprit was water intoxication, a relatively rare but frequently lethal condition that results from the body taking in more water than it can handle. When this happens, sodium levels outside the cells are depleted, a condition called hyponatremia. In an effort to rebalance itself, the body responds to the low blood sodium by increasing fluid intake inside the cells. Some organs, such as the liver, have room to accommodate the size of their swelling cells, but others – in particular the brain, which is encased in unyielding bone – cannot.
This story was told by Denise Flaim of HumaneK9 Inc, a professional all breed dog training facility in an article she wrote for the Whole Dog Journal. (you can read her whole article on their Facebook page). She was kind enough to allow us to reprint it because, well, it’s scary.
Its symptoms, according to Flaim, include:
- Loss of coordination (stumbling, falling, staggering)
- Increased salivation
- Pale gums
- Dilated pupils
- Glazed eyes
In later stages, your dog can also have difficulty breathing, develop seizures and even lose consciousness.
After reading Flaim’s article, I was frankly scared to let my dog (who is just learning to swim!) play in the water again. I wanted answers, so I asked Dr. Kim Smyth, a staff veterinarian for Petplan Pet Insurance about water intoxication as well as other dangers lurking in my dog’s summer fun.
How rare is water intoxication?
KS: Water intoxication is relatively rare, considering how popular swimming is among our canine friends. However, it can occur in any dog, particularly after a long day of swimming or a particularly vigorous game of “bite the hose.”
Because the symptoms of water intoxication progress so quickly, a pet parent can find themselves in an emergency care situation within a few hours. I always recommend pet insurance to owners which lets you get your pet the treatment they need without having to worry about the cost.
Does the size of dog matter in how much water they can consume?
KS: Small dogs do seem to be over represented in cases of water intoxication, though it can certainly happen to dogs of any size.
Does a dog’s breed, age or health make a difference on how fast water toxicity can occur?
KS: It can. We do see water intoxication more in small breed dogs, as well as dogs who tend to be very “focused,” like agility dogs. Because older dogs can tire more quickly, they may not be up to swimming or playing in the water for long periods of time, and therefore are less apt to consume enough water to put them at risk for intoxication. Presumably, dogs with kidney disease may not be able to adequately produce enough urine to clear excess water intake from the system. However, dogs with kidney disease are also probably not spending hours frolicking in the waves.
Is there an amount of water that is “too much”?
KS: Not exactly – it will vary from dog to dog. Also, considering that the dog is likely drinking pool, lake or hose water, it’s very difficult to quantify the amount of water they consumed before they start showing clinical signs of water intoxication.
Are there early signs of water toxicity that pet owners can look for?
KS: Lethargy might be the first sign a pet parent sees. After a good play session, dogs are usually tired but happy. A dog with water intoxication will be tired to the point of collapse. Neurologic signs are probably already occurring, so look for a dull mentation or a “spacey” appearance to the eyes. Vomiting water and excess drooling are also key first signs. Seizures can occur if neurologic signs continue to progress.
What about the dangers of pool chemicals?
KS: Most pool chemicals are so dilute that they don’t pose much of a health risk. Many owners complain of urinary accidents from pets who drink from the pool or lake, but this has more to do with the amount of water they’re taking in rather than the quality of the water. Avoid letting a pet drink from a pool that has been recently “shocked,” and don’t let the pool be his primary source of water, but a drink from the pool every now and then is unlikely to pose a problem.
When it comes to swimming in open water, should pet owners worry about bacteria/pollution, etc?
KS: Yes. Blue green algae can quickly produce neurologic signs, liver failure and can even be fatal. If a local lake is closed due to a blue green algae bloom, do not allow your dog to swim in it.
Standing water is a good reservoir for the bacterial disease leptospirosis, which is transmitted through water contaminated with the urine of other infected animals, like rodents.
Regarding pollution, a good rule of thumb is to not allow your dog to swim in any water that you wouldn’t want your kids (or yourself) swimming in.
Giardia is one of the risks that is probably the most easily contracted – what are some prevention tips?
KS: Giardia is more commonly seen in young pets, suggesting that as a pet’s immune system matures it’s more apt to handle giardia. However, it does occur in adult pets occasionally, too. It is contracted by ingesting contaminated food or water and is more common in crowded kennels than in a household pet. Avoid letting your pet drink from water sources if you are unsure of the quality.