First responders often remind us in the spring and fall that despite warm air temperatures, the water is still cold. The temperature of most lakes and rivers in northern climates doesn’t rise until closer to July, in fact, and drops quickly by late September.
In the Pacific Northwest, for instance, spring water temperatures average in the 40s to low 50s. That’s a difference of 40 degrees if it’s close to 80 degrees outside! This gap in temperatures means that swimming outdoors can feel like jumping into a river of ice.
With that in mind, it’s important to be mindful of water temperatures when you and your dog visit parks or hike in places where lakes or rivers are present. A swimming hole that’s bathwater-warm in late summer may be like ice water in May.
So, which water temperatures are cause for concern?
The answer depends on a variety of factors. In general, if it’s too cold for you, it’s probably too cold for your dog. The vets at DogTrekker point out that if the water feels too cold for you to stand to wade in it, it’s not great for your dog. Temperatures below 50 degrees could be problematic, especially for certain dogs (see breed section, below).
However, length of time swimming is also a major factor. A quick dip or splash in a cold body of water isn’t likely to cause a problem for an otherwise healthy dog, especially if you dry them off afterward. Prolonged swimming in cold temps, however, can lead to hypothermia.
Other factors to consider include the wind chill, dampness of the air, and cloud cover. Any of these factors can tip a wet dog into the too-cold territory.
Many pet parents know about the risk of canine heatstroke but aren’t aware of the dangers of hypothermia to a dog. Hypothermia is characterized by an abnormally low body temperature and has three phases: mild, moderate, and severe.
A dog’s normal body temperature is between 99.5 and 102.5. Mild hypothermia in dogs is classified as a body temperature of 90 – 99°F (or 32 – 35°C), moderate hypothermia at 82 – 90°F (28 – 32°C), and severe hypothermia is any temperature less than 82°F (28°C).
It’s possible to check your dog’s temperature with a thermometer. If it’s below 95 degrees, the pet could be at risk for hypothermia. However, even without a temp check, you can watch for signs your dog is too cold and respond quickly. Treatment for hypothermia should begin immediately, as it can quickly become a life-threatening emergency.
Signs of hypothermia in dogs
- stiff muscles
- pale or gray gums
- stumbling or lack of coordination
- fixed and dilated pupils
- low heart and breathing rates
Care for your dog after a cold swim
Even if your dog isn’t showing signs of hypothermia, be sure to take steps to warm him up after a swim.
- Remove your pet from the cold water, dry him off with towels and put him in a warm room. This could be your car.
- Wrap your pet in a blanket.
- Allow your dog to drink warm fluids like chicken broth or warm milk.
If your pet doesn’t respond to warming up his body within 30 to 45 minutes, go straight to the vet.
Small breeds, short-haired dogs, puppies and geriatric dogs, and those with heart or other medical conditions are all more sensitive to colder temperatures. If your dog falls into any of these categories, think twice before spending long periods of time at the local swimming hole. An indoor dog swimming pool may be a better option or a dog park with a creek for splashing.
Jennifer Coates, DVM, writes that dogs with double coats, such as huskies or Newfoundlands, were bred to thrive in the cold. Other breeds are born to swim. These include most retrievers and other “water dogs.” Even these dogs, however, have their limits in cold water. For instance, if your senior Newfie has a medical condition, check with your veterinarian before taking them swimming outside.
- Bring water so your dog isn’t tempted to drink river or saltwater. This helps avoid parasite exposure.
- Remove your dog’s collar to avoid it snagging on any underwater plants.
- Check for hot pavement on the way to your swimming locale. Sand can also get very hot.
- Avoid strong currents and riptides.
- Prepare for temperature fluctuations. Find shady spots to cool off on hot days, and bring towels to warm up after a cool dip.
- Bathe after swimming. Someone shared this with me after I adopted a Beagle mix that loves to swim. Prolonged moisture on dogs’ coats can cause skin irritation, which can lead to hotspots.
While not a requirement, “float coats” or dog life vests can be very helpful, especially for dogs that aren’t strong swimmers, or dogs that spend a great deal of time on the water. A doggie life jacket typically has a handle for pulling them out of the water, as well as leash attachments.
Doggie wetsuits are designed for dogs that dock dive, surf, and hunt, so are more likely to spend long periods of time in the water. Hunting dogs work well into the season when cooler water temperatures persist, and wetsuits help keep them safe.
Remember how high the water is this time of year in addition to colder temperatures. After being inside for so many months, it’s almost impossible not to run screaming to the local river or lake with your dogs but use your best judgment before diving in!
The information provided in this article is not a substitute for professional veterinary help.