Expert advice: water safety for dogs

Expert advice: water safety for dogs

Dr Jessica May, UK lead vet at FirstVet, gives her advice on how to keep your dog safe around bodies of water this summer.

Many dogs love nothing more than a paddle in whatever water they can find, whether it is a pond, stream or sea. In the hotter months, our pooches may be particularly keen on cooling off in the water. However, there can be hazards lurking in the water which owners should be sure to look out for – and it is important to be mindful of the risks for dogs that can be hidden beneath the surface.

Limber Tail Syndrome

It’s not known exactly what causes Limber Tail Syndrome, but current theories suggest that it is connected to the restriction of blood flow to tail muscles through spending time in cold water. The main muscles affected are the intertransversarii ventralis caudalis (IVC) muscles, which control the wagging of a dog’s tail from side to side.

If the blood supply to these muscles is restricted, it can cause swelling, pain and even paralysis of the tail. Over-exercising, as well as exposure to cold water, can increase a dog’s risk of limber tail syndrome. Young dogs are particularly at risk if undertaking more exercise than they are used to.

The most common sign of limber tail syndrome is the tail hanging down, as if paralysed. However, there can be other signs, such as soreness around the tail and hind quarters, reluctance to sit, difficulty in passing stools and reduced appetite. Female dogs with limber tail syndrome may also find it difficult to urinate when they cannot lift their tail.

Affected dogs will usually recover within a few hours to a few weeks if they are kept warm and dry, with plenty of rest. If recovery is taking longer, or your dog is in pain, then the canine in question should be taken to the vet. The best way to prevent limber tail syndrome is to avoid excessive exercise and cold bodies of water. If your dog does go for a swim, make sure that they are thoroughly dried off afterwards.

Blue-green algae poisoning

One of the more dangerous water-related illnesses which owners should look out for is blue-green algae poisoning. Blue-green algae generally grows in still or slow-moving water, such as ponds, lakes and some streams. Although not all types of blue-green algae are dangerous, some can be extremely toxic to dogs, as well as other animals and even humans.

Different types of algae produce different types of toxins, so while some attack the liver, others may affect the nervous system. In cases where there is a build up of algae on the surface of the water a small area of water may contain high levels of toxins and can even be fatal.

algae in water

Signs of blue-green algae poisoning include vomiting, diarrhoea, drooling, wobbliness and blood in the stool. If symptoms worsen, it could mean that an affected dog may have breathing difficulties, seizures or even go into a coma.

If your dog shows any of these signs, you should take them to a vet immediately. Activated charcoal may be administered to absorb toxins and intravenous fluids may be used to flush them out. Prevention is by far the best way to keep your dog healthy, so make sure to be aware of any local outbreaks of blue-green algae and avoid any bodies of water where there are growing blooms.


Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection found in bodies of water across the world, usually where they have been infected with rat’s urine. It is caused by the leptospira bacteria and can lead to liver and kidney failure if a dog drinks or swims in infected water. As with blue-green algae poisoning, it is best to avoid stagnant bodies of water where the bacteria are able to grow.

If your dog does go swimming, it is a good idea to give them a thorough wash once they get home. This will ensure that any potentially hazardous organisms are removed from their fur.

The simplest way to prevent leptospirosis for dogs likely to be exposed to water is to get your dog vaccinated at 8-9 weeks, with another injection two weeks later, and a booster each year afterwards.

Safe swimming spots

Although some dogs may seem to be confident swimmers, it is important to keep an eye on them at any time they are around water. If you are taking your dog for a paddle, make sure to start around shallow areas, and if they are looking tired you can use a hand beneath their stomach to support their body weight.

Caution is also vital when looking for safe swimming spots. Calm bodies of water are best, such as ponds, lakes with designated swimming areas, or slower moving streams.


Faster moving rivers or rough seas can carry dogs away with the current or tide, while reservoirs and canals can both conceal dangers to dogs beneath the surface.

Reservoirs can have hidden currents and unexpected deep spots, while canals often contain discarded items which might injure a swimming dog. Sticking to smaller, calmer waters is the best way to ensure a safe swimming trip.

This is a guest essay by Dr Jessica May. 

Alessandra Pacelli

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