Water intoxication is a life threatening condition, leading to death in many cases. Some dogs do survive with intensive treatment but many suffer brain damage and have neurological impairment
Water intoxication describes a condition where more water is taken in than the kidneys can process. The excess water dilutes or lowers sodium levels, and is then taken up by the cells in the body to try to maintain a normal sodium level. This leads to swelling of the cells throughout the body, including brain cells. While there is room for swelling in most organs, the brain is incased in the skull. Any swelling of brain cells damages those cells, and can lead very quickly to death.
Water intoxication in dogs is most likely to happen while swimming or playing in the water. Diving for toys or swimming to retrieve a toy causes the dog to swallow water. If the play goes on long enough the dog will swallow more water than the kidneys can process. This doesn't mean your dog can never play in the water, just that the water play intervals are short enough and dry land breaks are long enough that the kidneys can keep up with the water being swallowed. Choosing a flat toy for your dog to retrieve rather than a ball helps keeps the mouth closed while swimming, limiting the water that is swallowed. Keep an eye on your dog during play, and make sure they are urinating during breaks.
Your dog is also at risk if he or she likes to bite water coming out of a hose or sprinkler, or biting at waves on the beach. When dogs do this they are swallowing some of the water, and you need to make sure they aren't swallowing too much. Again, make sure the "dry" breaks are long enough for the kidneys to keep up with the water.
Another risk for the wave biters is sand bloat. If the waves are stirring up sand on the beach, your dog is also swallowing sand. This can lead to a condition called sand bloat, another life threatening condition. The sand actually causes a blockage in the stomach or intestine, requiring surgery. It is never a good idea to let your dog bite at waves, or to throw a toy where they are retrieving in the surf line.
Dogs that were bred for water retrieving like labs and goldens tend to swim with their heads held high out of the water. This helps to limit the water they swallow while swimming. If your dog loves to swim, observe how they hold their head. Is it high or at water level? Is your dog so obsessed with swimming they don't stop unless you make them? These dogs are at higher risk and need more and longer breaks. Toy breeds and any dog with a very low body fat level are also at higher risk for water intoxication. The little ones have less body mass and the lean dogs don't have fat cells to store the excess water in.
Water play is great exercise for your dog, especially in the summer when it's too hot for other forms of play. Just be careful and make sure the dry land breaks are long enough.
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