Drowning and Near-Drowning in Dogs

Lauren Jones, VMD
Written by:
Published: July 13, 2022
Drowning and Near-Drowning in Dogs

What is Drowning and Near-Drowning in Dogs?

Although many people believe dogs are natural swimmers, tragically this is often not the case. Some dogs will immediately go underwater and drown or nearly drown. Other dogs may be able to swim for a while, but soon grow tired and are unable to continue to paddle.

Drowning is more common in dogs than in cats, and is usually seen in puppies under 4 months old. Dogs can easily fall into unfenced pools, ponds, bathtubs, or other bodies of water with steep sides and no way out. A near-drowning is more accurately called nonfatal drowning and occurs when a dog is submerged in water and survives for at least 24 hours.

During drowning, carbon dioxide increases in the body, which triggers a dog to take a breath. This leads to aspirating water, which fills the alveoli, small sacs in the lungs responsible for exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide). The water fills and collapses these sacs, leading to pneumonia, infection, decreased oxygenation, and organ damage.

Water temperature, type of water (salt vs. fresh), any chemicals in the water, and the length of time a dog is underwater all play a part in the severity of damage. Once underwater, dogs only have minutes before brain damage, organ failure, and potential death ensue.

Drowning is a medical emergency. If your dog falls into a body of water or is submerged under water for any length of time, seek emergency veterinary care immediately. Clinical signs can be delayed, so it is still critical for dogs that are seemingly acting normal to receive veterinary attention.

Symptoms of Drowning and Near-Drowning in Dogs

Clinical signs of drowning mostly involve the respiratory system:

  • Coughing with or without foamy, red saliva

  • Respiratory distress

  • Decreased body temperature 

  • Blue gums indicative of cyanosis, or lack of oxygen

  • Vomiting

  • Loss of consciousness

  • Apnea, or not breathing

Causes of Drowning and Near-Drowning in Dogs

Any place with a significant amount of water can cause dogs to drown. Unmonitored pets around pools or ponds without an easy exit account for most dog drownings. Bodies of water with thin ice also result in frequent drownings and hypothermia in dogs that fall through accidentally.

While inadequate safety precautions, owner negligence, and intentional animal abuse are the main causes of drowning in pets, it is also important to recognize that even everyday household items are drowning hazards. Shallow plastic children’s pools, bathtubs, and even water buckets are potentially dangerous.

Any water that is deep enough to submerge the nose and mouth can drown an animal that has suffered from head trauma, seizures, hypoglycemic episodes, cardiac arrhythmias and fainting, or clots — anything that can cause a temporary lack of consciousness.

A term called “dry drowning” was once used to describe drowning events that involve the animal’s airway closing during or after entry into the water. Animals believed to have “dry drowned” have little water in their lungs.

However, recent studies have shown this is exceedingly rare and is not appropriate to call a form of drowning. Most dogs believed to have “dry drowned’ were not breathing prior to submersion into water due to some other issue, such as trauma, blood clot, low blood sugar, or heart issues.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Drowning and Near-Drowning in Dogs

Drowning is, unfortunately, an easy diagnosis in dogs, as they are usually recovered from water by their pet parents and brought to the hospital. However, the complications of near-drowning can be more difficult to diagnose and require extensive care by a veterinary staff.

After a near-drowning episode, veterinarians will monitor the following parameters and tests including:

  • Blood chemistry, complete blood count, and urinalysis to monitor organ function, electrolytes, and cellular damage.

  • Blood gas testing to show levels of oxygenation and other abnormalities.

  • X-rays of the chest to look for fluid and pneumonia. Radiographic changes may not be visible until a day or two after the event.

  • ECG monitoring to watch for cardiac arrhythmias.

  • Endotracheal or transtracheal wash of the fluid in the lungs to identify any infectious agents.

  • Advanced imaging, such as CT or MRI of the brain in cases of brain damage.

Treatment of Near-Drowning in Dogs

Prompt veterinary care is critical following a near-drowning incident, but treatment should start immediately.
If your dog is unconscious, you can institute mouth-to-muzzle resuscitation or even CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) if needed. Remove any objects from the airway and use towels to dry off and warm your dog, as hypothermia (decreased body temperature) is a common complication.

Once at the veterinary hospital, dogs that have had a near-drowning event will be placed on oxygen supplementation to help them breathe. This may be by a mask, a cage, or even full intubation in severe cases. An intravenous catheter will allow the veterinarian to more easily deliver fluids and medications.

The degree of severity, based on clinical signs and diagnostic testing results, will determine additional treatments such as:

  • Cardiac drugs

  • Antibiotics

  • Treatments for brain swelling

  • Anti-cough medications

Recovery and Management of Near-Drowning in Dogs

Recovery and prognosis are closely related to the amount of time spent underwater, and the amount of time before a dog begins receiving veterinary care. Most dogs that are conscious when arriving at the veterinary hospital have a good prognosis if there are no complications. Recovery may take days to weeks, depending on the severity. Most common complicating factors and long-term concerns include:

  • Pneumonia

  • Fluid in the lungs

  • Gastrointestinal issues like bleeding, vomiting, and diarrhea

  • Kidney injury

  • Permanent brain damage

  • Coagulation abnormalities

  • Central diabetes insipidus (a disease that causes abnormal urination and thirst)

Drowning or Near-Drowning in Dogs Condition FAQs

How long can a dog survive after a near-drowning?

Many dogs recover completely from a near-drowning episode, with a normal life expectancy.

What are the symptoms of “dry drowning” in dogs?

Any dog who had a near-drowning episode should be evaluated by a veterinarian, even if they are currently showing symptoms or not.

How do you treat a dog after a near-drowning?

Treatment primarily involves supplementing oxygen, increasing body temperature, and correcting any organ or blood dysfunction.

Can dogs survive a near-drowning?

Dogs can survive if they receive prompt veterinary care and have few complications.

References

  1. Tilley L, Smith F. The 5-Minute Veterinary Consult: Canine and Feline. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2005

  2. Côté E, Ettinger S, Feldman E. Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine: Diseases of the Dog and the Cat. Elsevier.

  3. Creedon B. Veterinary Information Network. Environmental Lung Injury: Drowning and Smoke Inhalation. 2017.

Featured Image: iStock.com/knape


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