Water can pose a great risk for your pet, despite the fun

Published 08/10/2013 | 05:30

Water can provide wonderful entertainment for pets, but as for people, the hidden risk of drowning needs to be treated with respect.
Water can provide wonderful entertainment for pets, but as for people, the hidden risk of drowning needs to be treated with respect.

The latest canine addition to our family, Finzi, is a water-loving dog. If she's on the beach, she rushes into the sea. If she's in woodland, she finds ponds that are deep enough for paddling. And if there is a river nearby, she rushes in for a wallow in the water.

Whenever she is standing in water, she has a bright, enthusiastic expression on her face. She especially loves to chase her tennis ball in and out of the water: there's something about splashing around that "works" for her.

Not all dogs enjoy water: I know a Bichon Frise who has a phobia about getting wet. If he walks on the beach, he stays twenty metres from the water's edge. He avoids puddles, and if it's raining, he doesn't want to go outside at all. His attitude is understandable: he has a long,white, powder-puff coat, and if he gets wet, it must be like walking around wearing a soggy duvet.

Dogs' fur coats vary significantly, from the tight, short coats of Doberman-types to the curly, longer fur of Spaniel-type dogs to the extra-long hair of non-shed breeds like Poodles and Yorkshire Terriers. Despite this variation, most dogs seem to have a natural ability to cope with getting wet: "water wimps" like the Bichon Frise are the exception rather than the rule.

Dogs have an instinctive "shake" reaction when they get wet. They stand still, bracing themselves on all four feet, then they twist themselves rapidly from side to side, as if doing a speeded-up version of the "Twist" dance. Droplets of water are thrown off all around them, as anyone who has misfortune to be standing nearby will discover.

Once the shake is finished, it's as if the dog has been through a spin cycle on a washing machine: the bulk of the water has gone. The dog's fur coat has already rearranged itself into its various layers, with the deep, soft insulating downy fur, and the tougher, outer, bristly hairs. A few gallops up and down on dry land, and while the coat may not be dry, it's certainly not soaking wet any more.

Many owners use swimming as a useful form of exercise for their pets:it's an efficient form of aerobic physical exertion. The muscles work hard, but because of the buoyancy of the body in water, the joints are not stressed by the full weight of the animal. Swimming can be especially beneficial for animals recovering from injuries, or for older animals suffering from arthritis.

The ideal is to visit pet hydrotherapy centres, with swimming pools and underwater treadmills specially for dogs. For many animals, a visit to the local river or beach can provide a simple, informal version of the same concept.

It is important to be aware of the risk of drowning. People seem to think that dogs have a natural ability to be safe, but this isn't necessarily true. In particular, if your dog loves water, you need to take care not to overdo it. I have heard stories of dogs drowning when their owners had not realised that their pet had become exhausted.

Rivers can be especially dangerous, because a tired dog may not be able to climb up a steep riverbank. There are also tales of dogs getting lost at sea after being caught in a tidal current. I remember one dog who lost his sense of direction at sea: he started off chasing a toy that had been thrown, but he lost his bearings, and ended up panicking, paddling straight out towards the far horizon. His owner had to summon a nearby power boat, speeding out towards his pet to rescue him.

It's also important to realise that human life can be at risk when a dog gets into trouble in water. It is not easy to witness a dog struggling in deep water, but it can be dangerous to try to rescue them. A panicking dog is not easy to bring ashore - the scrabbling paws of a frightened animal can easily upset a weak human swimmer. Every year there are reports in the media of humans drowning after going into deep water in an attempt to rescue a pet.

I once had to rescue my own dog Spot after he nearly drowned. He was just a puppy, and we were walking him along a seaside pier. He somehow misjudged his step and fell straight off the edge, tumbling 20 feet into deep water. He went under, then came to the surface doing a frantic doggy paddle.

I rushed down a nearby ladder, and luckily he swam towards me, so that I could grab him. I know that if needed, I would have dived into the water to get him: the theory of "staying safe" is difficult when faced by real life situations like this.

Even small bodies of water can be dangerous for pets: I have heard about dogs drowning in swimming pools and garden ponds. It's impossible to protect pets from every risk, but it does make sense to carry out a simple risk assessment before leaving your dog alone in a garden. Ask yourself: if your dog fell into, or jumped into, the pond, would he or she be able to clamber out? If the answer is "no", then there is a risk of a fatal accident, and you should take steps to prevent it.

Water can provide wonderful entertainment for pets, but as for people, the hidden risk of drowning needs to be treated with respect.

Enniscorthy Guardian

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