“Drowning” Out of Water

It is summer and time for your dog to dive into your swimming pool or a sparkling lake, or playfully bite at the water jetting from your lawn sprinklers or garden hose but are you aware of water intoxication?
Water intoxication is when the body takes in more water than it can handle and, though rare, is frequently lethal.  This excess amount of water causes a condition call hypernatremia which happens when sodium levels outside the cells are depleted.  The body responds to this low blood sodium by rebalancing itself; increasing fluid intake inside the cells.  Some of the body’s organs can accommodate the swelling cells but the brain, being encased in bone, cannot.
Symptoms of water intoxication are lethargy, bloating, vomiting, stumbling, falling, staggering, restlessness, increased salivation, pale gums, dilated pupils, and glazed eyes and as the pressure in the brain increases, cells begin to die, leading to difficulty breathing, seizures and loss of consciousness.  Water intoxication is more common than we realize and many veterinarians misdiagnose it because they do not know that it exists.  First guesses at veterinary emergency clinics may include head trauma, hypothermia, and overexertion.  There isn’t much in published literature on the condition, noting one of the only scholarly works was published in 1925.  Even internal-medicine specialists seem confused at how a water-logged canine body can turn on itself.
Water intoxication can happen to any dog who takes in too much water, too fast but the condition advances more quickly in small dogs as well as high-drive dogs such as Jack Russell Terriers and Papillion’s.  Dogs who are members of the agility community are more prone to water intoxication due to low body fat levels; not much extra tissue to absorb the extra fluid.  It can happen to any breed of dog but it is the driven dog usually, the one who jumps into the lake for a toy or the obsessive-compulsive dog who continuously bites water, who suffers most.  Dogs bred for water retrieving like Labrador Retrievers, Newfoundland’s, and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers usually do not suffer from water intoxication as they have been bred for generations to move through the water with their mouths tightly closed, to cause as little surface disturbance as possible.  Mild cases of water intoxication may resolve themselves without any notice from the sufferers owner by producing urine to remove fluid but really severe cases probably won’t survive because the brain stem, which controls respiration, dies.
But all of this does not mean you and your best friend cannot enjoy a romp in the lake or a dive into the pool, just be a little cautious at it.  Try not to throw a toy more than five times then take a 5-10 minute break.  Don’t throw tennis balls as the dog’s mouth is wide open when retrieving it, instead, throw something flat.  There are many flat toys on the market that float and double as a tug toy as well.  These toys are in the dog’s line of vision when retrieving so they feel they have to hold their head high in order to see it.
Water intoxication is real and it is out there and the best way to deal with it is to not let it happen in the first place.  Just pay attention.