- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
We all know that in the spring and autumn despite the occasional 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. It often 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 there are lakes or rivers. A pond that’s bathwater-warm in late summer may be like ice water in May.
Water temperature and dogs
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 10 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.
Hypothermia signs and treatment
Many pet parents know about the risk of canine heatstroke but aren’t aware of the dangers of hypothermia to a dog. Hypothermia is characterised by an abnormally low body temperature and has three phases: mild, moderate, and severe.
A dog’s normal body temperature is between 37.5 – 39.1°C. Mild hypothermia in dogs is classified as a body temperature of 32 – 35°C, moderate hypothermia at 28 – 32°C, and severe hypothermia is any temperature less than 28°C.
It’s possible to check your dog’s temperature with a thermometer. If it’s below 35 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 grey 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 in a body of water. An indoor dog swimming pool may be a better option or a dog park with a stream for splashing around in.
Vet, Dr Jennifer Coates, 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 older Newfie has a medical condition, check with your vet before taking them swimming outside.
Safety tips for taking your dog swimming
- 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 told me to do this after I adopted a Beagle mix that loves to swim. Prolonged moisture on dogs’ coats can cause skin irritation, which can lead to hotspots.
Doggy swim gear
While not a requirement, “float coats” or dog life jackets 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 lead 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.
After being inside all winter it can be tempting not to run screaming to the local river or lake with your dogs on the first warm spring day but use your best judgment before diving in!