Drowning – a summer hazard for pets that can be avoided

Summer and the hot weather will arrive soon. For many of us, this means opening backyard pools, taking walks by shaded rivers, boating, and hanging out on docks by lakes or playing on ocean beaches. The cool water is a welcome relief from the heat, but remember: water safety is a must, especially with children and pets. Every year it is estimated that thousands of family pets drown. 

Drowning is more common in dogs than in cats. Many pet owners also assume that dogs are natural swimmers. Tragically, this is not the case. Dogs and cats (like children) can easily fall into unfenced pools, ponds, bathtubs, and other bodies of water with steep sides and no way out. Even a bucket of water can pose a drowning risk to a cat.

What is drowning and near-drowning in cats and dogs? 

Drowning happens when a pet becomes completely submerged in water, and their lungs can’t get oxygen and stop functioning. Almost all causes of drowning occur due to exhaustion.  

A near-drowning is more accurately called nonfatal drowning and refers to when a pet is submerged in water and suffers asphyxia (they are deprived of oxygen) due to submersion and survives for more than 24 hours. 

During drowning, carbon dioxide increases in the body, which triggers an animal to take a breath. This leads to aspirating (breathing in) water, which fills the alveoli (small sacs in the lungs responsible for exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide). The water fills and collapses these sacs, leading to pneumonia, infection, decreased oxygenation, and organ damage. 

Water temperature, type of water (salt vs. fresh), any chemicals in the water, and the length of time an animal is underwater all play a part in the severity of damage. Once underwater, pets only have minutes before brain damage, organ failure, and potential death ensue. 

Drowning is a medical emergency. If your pet falls into a body of water or is submerged under water for any length of time, seek emergency veterinary care immediately. Clinical signs can be delayed, so it is still critical for pets that seem to be acting normally to receive veterinary attention. 

Boundary Bay Veterinary Specialty Hospital is open 24/7 for emergencies; we are  VECCS Level 1 certified, and capable of handling even the most critical, life-threatening emergencies and trauma, with specialists on staff and on-call to handle any medical or surgical issue, including oxygen supplementation and mechanical ventilation in our ICU. 

What are the symptoms of drowning and near-drowning in pets? 

If you did not actually witness your pet falling into water, or your pet was only in the water for a short time, you may still see clinical signs of drowning. Most symptoms (other than a wet coat) involve the respiratory system: 

  • Coughing with or without foamy, red saliva 
  • Respiratory distress 
  • Decreased body temperature  
  • Blue gums indicative of cyanosis, or lack of oxygen 
  • Vomiting 
  • Loss of consciousness 
  • Apnea, or not breathing 

How does a veterinarian diagnose drowning and near-drowning in pets? 

Drowning is, unfortunately, an easy diagnosis in pets, as they are usually recovered from water by their pet parents and brought to the hospital. However, the complications of near-drowning can be more difficult to diagnose and require extensive care by a veterinary staff. 

After a near-drowning episode, our hospital team can monitor the following parameters and tests including: 

  • Blood chemistry, complete blood count, and urinalysis to monitor organ function, electrolytes, and cellular damage. 
  • Blood gas testing to show levels of oxygenation and other abnormalities. 
  • X-rays of the chest to look for fluid and pneumonia. Radiographic changes may not be visible until a day or two after the event. 
  • ECG monitoring to watch for cardiac arrhythmias. 
  • Endotracheal or transtracheal wash of the fluid in the lungs to identify any infectious agents. 
  • Advanced imaging, such as CT or MRI of the brain in cases of brain damage. 

How does a veterinarian treat a pet after a near-drowning incident?  

Prompt veterinary care is critical following a near-drowning incident, but treatment should start immediately. 

If your pet is unconscious, you can institute mouth-to-muzzle resuscitation or even CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) if needed. Remove any objects from the airway and use towels to dry off and warm your pet, as hypothermia (decreased body temperature) is a common complication. 

Once at the veterinary hospital, pets that have had a near-drowning event will be placed on oxygen supplementation to help them breathe. This may be by a mask, a cage, or even full intubation in severe cases. An intravenous catheter will allow the veterinarian to more easily deliver fluids and medications. 

The degree of severity, based on clinical signs and diagnostic testing results, will determine additional treatments such as: 

  • Cardiac drugs 
  • Antibiotics 
  • Treatments for brain swelling 
  • Anti-cough medications 

Recovery and prognosis are closely related to the amount of time spent underwater, and the amount of time before an animal begins receiving veterinary care. Most pets that are conscious when arriving at the veterinary hospital have a good prognosis if there are no complications. Recovery may take days to weeks, depending on the severity.  

Most common complicating factors and long-term concerns include: 

  • Pneumonia 
  • Fluid in the lungs 
  • Gastrointestinal issues like bleeding, vomiting, and diarrhea 
  • Kidney injury 
  • Permanent brain damage 
  • Coagulation abnormalities 
  • Central diabetes insipidus (a disease that causes abnormal urination and thirst) 

How can I prevent my pet from drowning? 

  • ALWAYS supervise your pet, even if they are a professional swimmer, when they are near or in water. 
  • Anytime a pet is near water, including boating, have them wear a well-fitted lifejacket.  
  • Teach your dog how to swim – the younger, the better. Cats do not generally like to swim, but if they are attracted to the water, consider swimming lessons. 
  • Skip tossing balls or sticks into water to avoid dogs getting water into their open mouth as they swim back.  
  • Keep pets on a leash when at the lake or near the ocean, especially if it is their first time or you are not able to properly monitor them. 
  • Be sure that you have taught your dog a reliable recall for when they are off-leash near water. 
  • If you take your pet boating, provide them with a way that they can easily enter the boat. Learn about boat safety and how to train your dog to go boating with you. 
  • Fence in pools and use a pool alarm system. Pool covers are especially dangerous, and animals may walk on them, fall through and be trapped underneath. 
  • Ensure your pet has an easy way to exit the pool. Install a pet-safe ramp, floating ramp, or ladder. Pets need practice learning how to get in and out of a pool, so take the time to show them how and have them practice. If using a ladder, you can train them to use it the same way as a boat ladder. 
  • Even if your pet can swim, it’s best they wear a life jacket when they have access to the pool.

Learn CPR and First Aid 

Sadly, not all accidents can be prevented. If your pet will be spending time around any type of water, it is important you know CPR in case you find them unresponsive in the water. These resources can help you learn the basics that might just save your pet’s life. 

Other Water-Related Hazards

Here are four more things for pet owners to watch out for around water: 

Hot spots: These are skin infections that can spread like wildfire if your pet’s coat does not dry between swims. They become very red and painful. Treatment requires your dog’s fur to be clipped and a topical or oral prescription. To prevent, dry your dog thoroughly after swims and remove its collar, which can trap moisture. 

Limber tail: This is a condition that occurs if the dog swims for so long or so rigorously that it strains its tail muscle. The tail may appear flaccid or broken and the pet may be reluctant to sit down, or it may experience extreme pain when the tail is touched. See a vet to make sure it isn’t a fracture or spinal disc disease, then give your dog rest and pet-appropriate pain medications, she advises. 

Blue-green algae: Watch out for this toxic algae, which can be fatal if ingested. Call your veterinarian or the Pet Poison Helpline (1-855-764-7661) if you think your pet has ingested the algae. Better yet, if the water looks like something you wouldn’t swim in or drink, keep your pet away. 

Water borne illnesses: Bodies of water, such as lakes and ponds, serve as a home for diseases. While some diseases are of little threat and easily treated, others can be devasting. Knowing about these diseases is the best way to protect your dog. 

Common water-borne diseases include: Leptospirosis, Giardiasis (beaver fever). 


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