Picture the scene: you’re happily running with your dog along a sunny beach somewhere, when suddenly you hear a yelp! Running over, you see he has cut his paw on a rock. It’s not serious but what should you do next? Is it a good idea to wash his paw off in the sea? Seawater is good for wounds… isn’t it?
Yes and No…
Where does this common belief that the sea is good for wounds actually come from? Since Ancient times, people have used seawater to clean wounds and prevent infection. The theory behind this is that the sea contains a lot of salt. Salt added to a wound will draw out the fluid that easily harbours bacteria, thus reducing the chance of infection. The physical act of washing the wound will also remove gross contamination that could hold bacteria too. In fact, modern medicine uses medical salt water, called saline, for reducing infection risks and increasing healing rates as well.
It is important to remember that seawater is not medical-grade saline – seawater contains a lot of other stuff, especially huge amounts of bacteria. When washing a wound with seawater, you could actually be introducing more bacteria than the wound started with; there are horror stories of people going swimming with open wounds that subsequently become horribly infected for this reason. The risk is especially high if you use seawater from estuaries, near fisheries, sewers, farms, factories or other sources of pollution, or seawater from warmer waters. On top of the risk of bacterial infection from seawater, there is also evidence that the concentration of salt in seawater can actually slow healing by increasing inflammation and drying the skin out too much.
What Should I Do?
So that all may or may not be interesting to you, but the important thing is knowing what you should do if the above situation happens to you. The increased risk of infection by washing a wound with seawater should not be forgotten, so you should mostly avoid its use. Instead, use homemade salt water or even bottled water to clean the wound, before contacting your vet (more on this later).
In a real emergency where your dog’s wound is heavily contaminated with mud, sand or grit, and you have no other source of water, seawater can be used to wash off this contamination – however, please inform your vet you did this. As mentioned above, if seawater is your only option, be extra mindful to avoid using water from contaminated areas. Furthermore, if your dog is old, young, ill or otherwise immunocompromised, be extra hesitant, as they will be less able to fight off any infection introduced from seawater.
Best Practice for Wounds
The following is the best practice you can follow for emergency wound management:
The first step is to assess the wound visually.
Dogs can sometimes be fearful or aggressive when in pain, so approach carefully and be careful touching the wound. If there is bleeding, you will need to stop this with compression; any material can be used, even hands, but clean towels, bandages or clothes are good in a pinch. If the bleeding does not stop, immediately visit a local vets while maintaining compression.
Once the bleeding stops, look at the degree of contamination.
As we mentioned before, if it is quite dirty, you should wash it. Saline is best, and you can make your own to keep in your car for emergencies . Mix distilled, purified or boiled water with 1/100th the weight of salt (for example, 100ml of water with 1g of salt). You can keep this in a sealed bottle for up to a week, so it’s easy to prepare beforehand. If you don’t have saline, bottled water is an alternative. Though avoid tap water or seawater unless absolutely necessary, as we discussed above. Be gentle when washing the wound, so you do not disturb the skin and restart bleeding or push debris further into the wound. If you are unsure, it is better to just wrap the wound until you reach the vet.
After the wound is clean (or not if you decide it is best to leave it), wrap the wound in something clean and supportive. Immediately visit your vet (or any other nearby vet). Phone ahead first, so they can prepare. It is important to note that if you suspect there are any broken bones you should prevent the wound moving as much as possible.
Once at the vets, you can be assured that your dog is in good hands. Vets and nurses will fully clean the wound, remove any debris, assess if any repair is needed, bandage it up, and may offer antibiotics and pain relief too. Healing time varies, but your vet will discuss this all with you.
To answer the question of today, no, seawater is not good for your dog’s wound. You should avoid using it unless a wound is very dirty and there are no other forms of cleaning available. We have also explained what you should do if your dog gets cut at the beach. Hopefully you won’t have to worry about this, but it always pays to be prepared!