Many dogs love water, I know that my dog will happily splash all year round! A flat-coated retriever like mine is a magnet for water of any kind. But is it safe for a dog to go for a swim during the winter months? Let’s explore this in more detail.
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Swimming as a form of exercise
Swimming can be an excellent form of exercise, and many dogs enjoy it. Water provides a low impact work-out, supporting the limbs and providing gentle resistance for your dog’s muscles to work against. Many dogs just enjoy the sensation of having a good splash around!
Possible risks of swimming in cold weather
Some dogs are more hard-core than others (my flat coat included!) and can’t resist taking a dip even during the winter months. The average sea temperature in the UK is 6-10oC, compared to summer temperatures of double this at 15-20oC. Swimming in cold water is invigorating, and many dogs, as well as human swimmers, will still partake in the winter month. However, there are a few risks that you should be aware of.
If your dog gets too cold, he could suffer from hypothermia. Normal temperature in dogs is around 38- 39oC, if their temperature dips below 36oC then they could be at risk of hypothermia. Dogs with hypothermia can show neurological problems (such as confusion, disorientation and weakness), a slowed breathing rate, heart issues, frostbite (damage to soft tissues) and possible death.
Whilst most dogs running around, splashing in and out of cold water are unlikely to suffer from hypothermia, it is still a risk for some. Very small or thin animals will be more susceptible to the cold, as will very young or old dogs. If a dog like this were to fall in an icy pond or spend too long in cold sea conditions on a brisk windy day for example, then they could be at risk.
Drowning is something that can occur at any time of the year, not just in the winter months. Your dog should be supervised at all times whilst swimming. You should make a judgement call as to whether the conditions are safe for him to take a dip.
In the winter months, the sea is often rougher and so the risk of getting into difficulty is higher. Heavy rainfall can also make normally slow running ditches, streams and rivers much faster flowing. Your dog could therefore get caught out in an area he’s previously been comfortable swimming in.
Don’t encourage your dog to swim in ponds or lakes with ice cover on the surface. This is in case he slips under the water and is unable to find somewhere to surface again. Hypothermia is also more likely
in icy conditions.
Acute caudal myopathy (also known as ‘swimmer’s tail’ or ‘limber tail’) is a condition that especially affects dogs that like to be in the water. Dogs use their tails to balance and steer whilst swimming, so the muscles here are being constantly exercised when the dog is in the water. Swimming in cold weather and overexerting themselves (especially when they haven’t done any intense swimming for a while) can predispose a dog to limber tail.
When the tail muscles have become overworked and strained in this way, they will become uncomfortable, and your dog may have the following symptoms –
- A limp, hanging down tail
- No wagging of the tail
- Pain, especially when you touch or try and move the tail
- Crying or whining in discomfort
- Licking or chewing at the tail
This condition is most commonly seen in working and hunting breeds, especially those that enjoy water such as retrievers and spaniels.
Your vet will examine your dog and may suggest some other diagnostics if they want to rule out other conditions. Rest and anti-inflammatory painkillers will usually help improve things though.
Your dog’s breed
Take into account your dog’s breed. Working dogs like retrievers are naturally good swimmers having been designed by selective breeding for this over the years. Dogs like pugs or miniature dachshunds are companion animals and not athletes. Therefore, you should not be encouraging them to swim, especially during the more challenging winter months. They will be far more likely to run into difficulty and possibly drown.
We don’t want to be spoilsports, as many dogs do quite happily enjoy a dip all year round! But it is well worth being aware of the risks and taking steps to keep your pet as safe as possible. Try and limit the length of time your pet spends in chilly water, to stop his body temperature from dropping too much and consider taking a dry towel out with you to rub him down post-swim.
Also, keep an eye on water and weather conditions and be aware of your dog’s limitations. If your dog gets into difficulty don’t risk your own life by going in after him, call a lifeguard or 999 for help. If you have any concerns about your dog after a swim, then you should always get them checked over by your veterinary surgeon.