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The Dangers of Water Intoxication in Dogs

Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.

Many dogs love playing in water, but drinking too much of it can cause problems

Many dogs love playing in water, but drinking too much of it can cause problems

What is Water Intoxication?

Water intoxication refers to a situation where a dog has consumed dangerous levels of water - yes, too much water can be bad for your pet. The commonest way for this to occur is with a dog playing fetch in water. Each time the dog grabs the toy, stick or ball they also take in a small amount of water. Depending on the size of the dog, how big they have to open their mouths to grab an object and the amount of time spent playing this game, a dog can end up swallowing too much water.

Less common, is when a dog simply drinks too much water from a bowl. This could be due to hot weather and the dog drinking several bowls of water in rapid succession. Or it could be the dog has a medical condition that makes it feel excessively thirsty and they simply keep drinking. Some dogs are also naturally inclined to drink large amounts in a single sitting.

When a dog consumes too much water, it dilutes the sodium (salt) content of the blood. Sodium is important to the body's function. It serves as an electrolyte and helps to regulate the amount of water inside and outside the body's cells. It is also important for the proper function of the nerves and muscles.

When the body's sodium levels become too diluted, it is known as hyponatremia. The cells of the body begin to take on too much water without sodium to prevent it, and they can become dangerously swollen. If the brain cells begin to swell, this can lead to brain damage.

Too much water can dilute the sodium (salt) in a dog's body

Too much water can dilute the sodium (salt) in a dog's body

What Are the Signs of Water Intoxication?

The symptoms of water intoxication usually come on quite suddenly and can be dramatic. They include:

  • Lethargy (not wanting to move)
  • Weakness
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Staggering and a loss of coordination
  • Bloating around the belly
  • Dilated pupils and/or glazed eyes
  • Excessive drooling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Collapse

In severe cases, a dog may begin to have seizures and could fall into a coma. If your dog has been playing with water and shows any of these signs, it is important to seek veterinary advice at once. Water intoxication needs to be treated promptly to save a dog's life.

Games of fetch in water can cause a dog to swallow too much liquid

Games of fetch in water can cause a dog to swallow too much liquid

If I Suspect My Dog has Water Intoxication, What Do I Do?

Water intoxication needs to be treated promptly by a vet.

The vet will assess the severity of the problem and begin treatment which will focus on raising the dog's sodium levels. Using an intravenous drips, vets will give electrolytes, diuretics (drugs that increase urination to remove excess water) and drugs that will ease any swelling on the brain. While all dogs suffering water intoxication will need some version of this treatment, the amount and aggressiveness of the treatment will depend on how bad the intoxication is and in some dogs it may be sufficient to just administer electrolytes intravenously and monitor their condition.

There are no home remedies for water intoxication and without veterinary treatment it is usually fatal.

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Dogs that receive prompt veterinary treatment have a better chance of survival, though they may need to spend several days under veterinary care.

Can Any Dog Suffer Water Intoxication?

Water intoxication can affect any breed of dog, however, the size and nature of your dog will change the level of risk.

Smaller dogs can develop water intoxication faster than larger dogs, as it takes less consumption of water for them to become overloaded.

Dogs that like to spend lots of time in water retrieving balls or other objects are also more susceptible, as during the process of grabbing an object from the water they consume mouthfuls of fluid. This can occur in a swimming pool as easily as in a river or lake. There have been cases of dogs developing water intoxication after hydrotherapy, where they were allowed to dive into the water after toys.

Dock diving is a sport where dogs are encouraged to leap into water after a toy. Occasional sessions of dock diving are not a problem, but if a dog performs many repetitions of the game they could swallow too much water.

Similarly, gundogs that are taught to bring game in from open water need to be restricted in the amount of repetitions they perform, either in training or when working.

Finally, some dogs suffer from polydipsia. This is a condition where the dog drinks excessively. In some instances this is a sign of an underlying health condition, but in healthy dogs it is a behavioural condition. The cause of behavioural polydipsia can be boredom, stress or simply because they enjoy drinking water. Dogs with polydipsia could be at risk of water intoxication if they have access to an unlimited amount of water.

For dogs that love water, simple precautions will enable them to keep playing safely

For dogs that love water, simple precautions will enable them to keep playing safely

How Do I Prevent Water Intoxication?

Firstly, it is important to state that swimming is in general a very healthy activity for dogs. It is good for their joints and muscles, as it is a low impact form of exercise. Concerns about water intoxication should not prevent you from allowing your dog to swim. Instead, by putting a few simple measures in place your canine buddy can continue to enjoy the water without danger of water intoxication.

Here is a list of the key things to watch out for when your dog is swimming:

  1. Place limits on the amount of fetch you play in water - most cases of water intoxication are seen in dogs that have been playing fetch for an extended period of time in a body of water. Limit how many times you play fetch in water (depending on the size of the dog, you might want to limit to 5-10 throws) and make sure to give your dog regular breaks from swimming. For instance, after 3 throws you might keep your dog on land for 10-15 minutes to give his body a chance to get rid of some of that excess water.
  2. Choose an object that does not require your dog to gape too much to retrieve - larger objects, or those that are difficult to get hold of will cause your dog to open wider and gulp more water trying to get them in their mouth. Balls can be worse for this than flatter retrieve objects.
  3. If your dog is a water guzzler after exercise, make sure you help them to pace how much fluid they consume. Half fill their bowl, rather than completely fill it and make sure they have a break between drinks to ensure they do not accidentally consume too much.

By taking these simple precautions you can help your dog stay safe while enjoying the water.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2021 Sophie Jackson

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