Near-Drowning in Dogs and Cats Can Be Fatal

By: Christine New, DVM

TVMA Member
Dallas, Texas

Published September 2014

Many owners believe that their pets inherently know how to swim. However, this is not the case for many dogs and cats. Aside from not knowing how to swim, a pet that falls into a body of water can drown or nearly drown as a result of not being able to get out. Swimming pools and hot tubs usually only have stairs or ladders at each end, and pets do not know to swim to the steps to get out. Rather, a pet may swim aimlessly around the pool, tire out and drown from exhaustion.

Some Pets are at a Higher Risk for Drowning

Pets with certain medical conditions may be more prone to water accidents. Examples of the conditions that can increase the risk of water accidents include seizures, dementiaA chronic or persistent disorder of the mental processes caused by brain disease or injury and marked by memory disorders, personality changes, and impaired reasoning., arthritis, irregular heart rhythm and blindness. If your pet has any of these conditions, it should never be left unattended near any body of water. Even if your pet is healthy, it can accidentally fall into a pool or body of water while running or playing. If you take your dog boating, consider providing it with a lifejacket. These are available for purchase at many pet stores.

Even if Your Pet is Rescued, Near-Drowning Can be Fatal for Dogs and Cats

If your pet falls into a body of water, struggles and is rescued, it may still suffer some after-effects of a near drowning. In just a matter of minutes or even seconds, a pet can inhale a large amount of water into its lungs. You may notice coughing, difficulty breathing, weakness, fluid coming from the mouth or nose, distress or anxiety. These signs can range from mild to severe. A pet may become very cold after inhaling water and have difficulty regulating its body temperature. Another common condition that can occur after a near-drowning is pneumonia.

Secondary drowning, which can be fatal, can occur up to three days after a near-drowning experience. After initially appearing to be normal, pets suffering from secondary drowning become lethargic, weak, may turn purple or blue, cough and struggle to breathe. Signs can progress very rapidly. Death can occur due to respiratory distress and lack of oxygen. A pet that is experiencing secondary drowning may act very normally after nearly drowning, which could mislead owners to believe that their pet is fine and does not need to be evaluated by a veterinarian.

What Should a Pet Owner Do if Your Pet Nearly Drowns?

If your pet has experienced a near-drowning episode, you should immediately take him to the nearest veterinary clinic for evaluation. Ideally your pet should have x-rays completed and be kept under observation for a minimum of 24 hours, with close attention to heart and respiratory rates and breathing characteristics. Diuretics can aid in the elimination of water from the lungs. Antibiotics may be started to help prevent pneumonia. Pets who seem to be more ill may need to receive IV fluids and oxygen.

Always keep a close eye on pets when near bodies of water. Don’t assume that its animal instincts will keep it from drowning as, sadly, drowning can occur. If your pet has had a near-drowning experience, be sure to have it seen by your veterinarian. This can be a serious medical issue that may progress rapidly even when no signs of a problem are immediately apparent.

Dr. Christine New practices veterinary medicine at the Hillside Veterinary Clinic in Dallas.