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The Danger of Water Intoxication in Dogs

How pet parents can protect their swimming pups.

by JoAnna Lou
Updated July 23, 2021
Bearded Collie running in a lake
Christian Müller / Adobe Stock

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Last week, a friend’s dog had a close call with water intoxication. Her dog crew was playing in a local river when one of her Border Collies emerged staggering and vomiting liquid. Symptoms quickly worsened on the way to the vet, but after a few harrowing days, the pup was fortunate to make a full recovery.

Apparently her dog ingested too much water while repeatedly diving into the river, mouth open, trying to catch a ball. Drinking too much causes electrolyte levels to drop, thinning blood plasma and leading to swelling of the brain and other organs.

Before I learned about water intoxication, I thought that playing in the lake (or any body of water) was safe if your dog was a strong swimmer. But now I know to be mindful of how my pups interact with the water and force them to take ample breaks. Dogs can even drink too much water from playing with a lawn sprinkler, believe it or not.

Unfortunately water intoxication progresses quickly. Now that summer is officially here, it’s important to review the signs so you can get your pup to the vet as soon as possible.

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What Causes Water Intoxication in Dogs?

When too much water is consumed in a short period of time — especially if the dog isn’t urinating or throwing up any of the water — the balance of electrolytes in the dog's body is disrupted, which can cause a disturbance in brain function. Water intoxication can lead to brain damage, heart failure, and even death.

Fortunately water poisoning isn’t common, but it’s important to be aware of the risk. The most frequent cases involve swimming dogs that ingest too much water and dogs who drink too many fluids after playing or exercising. 

Symptoms of Water Intoxication

Symptoms of water intoxication in dogs include lack of coordination, lethargy, nausea, bloating, vomiting, dilated pupils, glazed eyes, light gum color, and excessive salivation. Advanced symptoms include difficulty breathing, collapsing, loss of consciousness, and seizures.

Because water intoxication in dogs can progress so quickly, time is critical. If your dog exhibits these symptoms, get to a vet immediately to run blood work. A low level of electrolytes will confirm the condition. Treatment for water intoxication includes fluids, to put electrolytes back in the system, and sometimes a diuretic.

As the weather gets warmer, both pups and their parents need to practice water safety. Stay hydrated and don’t drink the ocean water (that goes for both of you).

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JoAnna Lou

JoAnna Lou

JoAnna Lou is a New York City-based researcher, writer and agility enthusiast.