Australians love swimming and water sports and we’re renowned for the “bronzing” of our outdoors lifestyles. We have some of the most magnificent beaches in the world and the highest per capita rate of pool ownership, so we know that waterside is a great place to spend long hot summers. It’s great to be able to include our pets in the fun, but there are some things to keep in mind when exposing them to water, whether it’s a back-yard pool, lake, river, or the ocean.
Are all dogs good swimmers?
Contrary to common belief, dogs aren’t necessarily natural-born swimmers.
What determines a dog’s ability to swim successfully has to do with their body shape. Some breeds such as spaniels and retrievers are strong swimmers but dogs with short muzzles, short legs, and relatively heavy chests, such as bulldogs and pugs, can struggle to stay afloat. When dogs are put in water they will instinctively “dog paddle” but that doesn’t mean they won’t sink beneath the surface. In addition to some being poor swimmers, some dogs are scared of the water.
Slowly does it…
When you introduce your dog to water for the first time it’s important to carefully monitor how they cope and react. For the first attempt, encourage them to get into the water with you while you’re already in it. Choose a shallow spot where there is a point they can reach easily to stand, and start at the edge. Don’t force them in, make sure to keep it stress-free, and keep them on a leash while they’re learning. Most importantly, never throw any type of animal into water and assume they’ll be able to swim.
Different types of water have different safety requirements
If you’re swimming at the beach, watch for rips and strong currents which are dangerous for both of you, no matter how strong a swimmer you are. Don’t let your dog drink sea water, and keep them away from dead fish. Drinking sea water can cause dehydration, vomiting and diarrhea. If your pet is going with you for a swim, taking a supply of fresh drinking water is essential, no matter what type of water your dog will be swimming in.
When it comes to pools, the starting point should be to teach them how to get in and out. Ensure there is a ramp or steps they can use to climb out easily.
Don’t let your pets drink pool water. Both fresh and salt water pools are chlorinated, and even if you can’t smell the chlorine it is still present, and it can make your pet sick. You don’t know what’s in the water your pet is swimming in, which is why they should never drink it.
Always rinse after swimming
Chlorine can irritate eyes and ears just as it can with people. Dogs with floppy ears are more likely to get ear infections, and all dogs should be rinsed thoroughly in fresh water after swimming, regardless of the type of water they’ve been in. Salt, minerals, algae, and pollution can be irritants, and can damage fur and skin. It’s also important to dry inside their ears completely to reduce the risk of infection which can be done with cotton balls, however, never put cotton bud tips in their ears.
Even dogs and cats who can swim and keep themselves afloat, won’t be able to do it indefinitely, and if they get into the pool and can’t get out, and we’re not there to rescue them, then it could be fatal. Drownings or near-drownings, are not uncommon, and like any other hazards at home, we need to pet-proof them.
Pool covers & fences
On the face of it, pool fences and pool covers may seem like a straightforward way to protect your pet from falling into a pool, but there are some things to bear in mind. Even though pool fencing is compulsory in South Australia, not all pools are fenced, and even those that are, can be potentially accessible by dogs. Some dogs are able to jump over them and some have spaces between the pickets large enough for small dogs to squeeze through. When choosing a pool fence, consider whether it will be animal proof as well as meeting the pool fencing requirement.
Pool covers can be a popular choice for keeping leaves out and reducing evaporation, but not all are sturdy enough to hold an animal. There are numerous factors that will influence this, including the size of the pool and the weight of the animal, but generally, pool covers are hazardous to animals. Even if the cover sustains the weight of the animal, they can still find it difficult climb back off them if they’ve slid to the centre causing a depression in the cover. Another serious risk is suffocation if they end up under the cover and in the water.
Fences and pool covers may provide a level of protection, but don’t rely on them as an alternative to keeping an eye on your pet when they’re near a pool.
Seniors are more likely to suffer from vision loss, arthritis, and less strength and agility generally. They therefore need your special attention around the pool or you may need to keep them out of the water altogether. Even if your older dog is a seasoned swimmer and a pool lover, getting out of a pool with steps or a ladder might be difficult. Scamper ramps are designed to provide an easier exit and can help them to get out of a pool independently.
As your dog reaches senior years, check with your vet whether he or she is fit enough to continue (or start) swimming.
Hyperthermia and hypothermia
Remember, that being in the sun creates a heat stroke risk, and it’s easy to forget how strong the sun is, and how long your pet has been in it when everyone is splashing about and having fun. Swimming is a strenuous exercise, therefore also keep an eye out for fatigue, dehydration as well as signs of distress.
While we normally associate pools with hot weather and summer time fun, the water in them can become very cold in winter. Just like us, animals can suffer from hypothermia in cold water, but they won’t understand that it’s the water that’s making them cold. If you need to get out of the water because it’s too cold, then it’s too cold for your pet as well.
What to do if you’ve found a distressed animal in the pool
If your pet is suffering from the cold, dry them off and keep them warm, and they’ll probably be fine. If they’re unconscious then it’s serious, and after removing them from the water check for vital signs. If the heart beat is still present, try CPR by pressing on the chest with the head lower than the body, this should expel most of the water from the lungs and make it possible for your pet to breathe. If you have nobody to assist you, a chest massage with your pet lying on its side could do the trick. Once the water is expelled from the lungs you may attempt mouth-to-nose (closing your pet’s mouth) breathing to force some air into your pet’s lungs. This may open up the airways and make it easier for your pet to breathe.
Once the breathing is established, keep your pet warm and transfer to your closest veterinary hospital. Vets4Pets has facilities to deal with these emergencies, and your pet may require oxygen and a hospital stay. The prognosis can vary from good to very poor, if secondary complications such as pneumonia occur.
General water safety rules
- Teach your dog to swim – If you’re not comfortable doing this or you don’t have the time, then a dog trainer can help. They will be well equipped to handle a fear of water and teach swimming basics.
- Never leave your dog alone while they’re near or in water
- Take extra care with older dogs
- Learn Dog CPR - properly administered artificial respiration and CPR can be a life-saver. Ask your vet to show you how.
- Always check for currents, even in lakes and ponds
- Remove flea collars before swimming
- Avoid water with algae
- If you’re taking your dog boating, get them their own life jacket - Life vests and life jackets can also help dogs that will never be strong swimmers, as they provide extra buoyancy. Bright colours will also help your dog to remain highly visible.
- If your pool isn’t fenced, then it should be, especially if your pet spends a lot of time in the pool area. Make sure it’s compliant and it’s pet-proof
- When fishing, keep dogs away from hooks and lines
Whilst most cats have an aversion to water, some actually don’t mind a dip, and even though it’s not advisable to intentionally introduce them to swimming, bear in mind that their curiosity means you will need to be vigilant with them as well. Nothing beats a watchful eye, swimming lessons, life-vests and pool fences however they will never substitute for careful supervision. Remembering these simple things will ensure that your pets can have a safe and enjoyable splash with you, and join you in cooling off during this summer.