BY MEGAN TREMELLING, DVM, LVS
Warm weather is back, and dogs all around Wisconsin agree that the best possible way to enjoy it is to go for a swim in our nearly one million acres of fresh water. If you work in a veterinary clinic, you know when the time has come by the aroma of wet fur and dead fish that clings to about 10 percent of your patients. (More if you see a lot of Labradors.)
Swimming is a wonderful activity for dogs. Most of them seem to love it. Indeed, some dogs can hardly be kept out of water when it is available, and water retrieving and dock diving are favorite pursuits for many. Swimming causes very little impact to the joints, which makes it ideal for dogs with musculoskeletal disease or injury. Many dogs that develop joint pain after running and playing on land can tolerate a good deal of swimming with no discomfort. And while it is possible to overdo swimming, like any other exercise, a dog is unlikely to stumble, fall or otherwise injure his limbs. Swimming burns off an enormous amount of energy and is invaluable for those dogs that need a lot of hard exercise to keep them out of trouble.
Unfortunately, taking a dip can have its downsides. Not all dogs can swim. Most of them can manage a dog paddle, and some swim very well. However there are a few who are just too anxious or awkward. Dogs with big heads, like Boston Terriers, are not particularly seaworthy and tend to sink headfirst unless they are strong and determined enough to keep their balance. Dogs with very short faces, like those aforementioned Bostons as well as Bulldogs and Pugs, sometimes have a lot of difficulty breathing even on dry land and may find that the challenge of splashes and brief submersions is more than their breathing can handle. Owners who take their dogs swimming are cautioned to watch them carefully at all times, to call it quits when the dog is getting tired and always be aware for signs of distress. Don’t let your dog swim in rough water. Flotation devices for dogs do exist and should be used as needed, but they are no substitute for vigilant supervision.
Dogs have a tendency to swallow water when they swim and play in it, and this can become a problem. Open water, of course, may contain dead fish, debris, and other things that your dog shouldn’t be ingesting. Shallow lakes and ponds are especially prone to overgrowth with blue-green algae, which can be poisonous to your dog. Pool water usually contains chlorine or other treatments. And even perfectly clean water can be harmful when consumed in enormous excess, resulting in vomiting or metabolic disorders that can be fatal. Do make fresh water available to reduce your dog’s urge to drink potentially contaminated water. Never allow your dog to swim in water that is deep green or contains obvious algae mats. And if your dog is the type that just can’t stop slurping up the water, you will need to put limits on his access to it.
If your dog has allergies or very sensitive skin, swimming should be considered with caution. Moisture can trigger inflammation and yeast infections, especially in ears and on feet. That doesn’t necessarily mean your dog can’t swim, but you will need to take extra caution to rinse her clean afterward, make sure her coat is thoroughly dried, and watch carefully for any evidence of skin or ear problems. See your veterinarian if you notice any skin that is red or oozing, or if your dog is licking excessively or shaking her ears. Your veterinarian may be able to make a plan that will allow your dog to enjoy the water without triggering skin problems.
Lastly, dogs that swim are at risk for a mysterious ailment that was never on the curriculum in veterinary school. Known by various names such as “cold tail” and “limber tail,” it seems to be a sprain or strain of the tail muscles, and occurs in dogs after vigorous activity or exposure to cold weather. Swimming in cold water definitely qualifies. The classic presentation is a Labrador that has spent the day swimming seems fine when he gets out of the water, then is found to be in significant pain a few hours later. The tail hangs limply, as if broken. It is worth seeing a veterinarian to make sure the dog doesn’t actually have a broken tail or other serious injury, and to provide some pain relief, but limber tail isn’t a serious problem. With some rest, the Labrador will soon be sweeping coffee tables clean, as good as new… and ready to get back in the water.