I love the beach. When I lived in San Diego, I went to the beach almost every day, rain or shine, year round. My border collie mix, Shadow, loved the beach as well, trotting along next to me with her nose in the air, sniffing out all the wonderful coastal aromas. I never had to worry about her going in the water as she hated to get wet; rain was fine, but waves were something to be avoided. She was also great about not eating sand and not rolling in any stinky seaweed that washed up on the shoreline. Not every dog, however, has that kind of enviable beach etiquette. I've seen dogs charging mouth first into the surf to retrieve balls, digging in the sand with their mouths wide open, and rolling in seaweed. Ingesting too much seawater can be dangerous and even life threatening, as can the ingestion of large quantities of sand. And those piles of seaweed? Sometimes they mask hidden dangers like jellyfish which can sting or dead fish that can make them sick. Yep, the beach can be a scary place, but with some planning in advance, it can be a safe and enriching excursion for you and your dog.
First off, a life vest. Even if your dog loves to swim and is a good swimmer, a life vest is a must. Tides can change quickly, currents can get rough, and a dog can easily be pulled out to sea. They may panic and start swimming in circles, tiring themselves out before you can safely retrieve them. Plus, those currents can be dangerous for you as well. If your dog is pulled out while wearing a life vest, they'll be easier for you or the lifeguards to find and help back to shore safely.
If your dog is digging and ingesting sand, or continually ingesting sand off of a ball they are retrieving, it's time to redirect them to another activity. Ingesting sand can lead to a condition called sand impaction, basically sand blocking the intestine. This condition is characterized by vomiting, dehydration, and abdominal pain. If your dog can't be redirected from sand-eating activities, it might be worthwhile to train them to wear a basket muzzle at the beach so that they can frolic and explore, but they can't ingest anything toxic. At a minimum, wash off the ball between retrieves so it's not coated in sand.
While you may feel that you are providing your dog with clean water to keep them hydrated and cool at the beach, they may still be ingesting sea water if they are out there in the waves chasing a frisbee or ball.
Acute water intoxication is somewhat rare but most commonly seen in dogs that love to play in water, whether that be fresh water or salt water. It can actually occur anytime an animal ingests a large quantity of water quickly. High risk dogs are those that engage in water play, including those who like to bite at sprinklers or play with the garden hose. Dogs who love to retrieve toys in water, or compete with other dogs to get those water toys are also at risk of ingesting large quantities of water as their mouths are open when retrieving.
The symptoms of water intoxication are loss of coordination, lethargy, bloating, vomiting, glazed eyes, excessive salivation, difficulty breathing, seizures, and coma.
Once a dog begins showing symptoms of water intoxication, it is critical to get them veterinary care immediately if they are to recover. When a dog ingests too much water, this results in a condition called "hyponatremia," which is excessively low sodium levels in the blood. Too much water causes unbalanced electrolytes and dilutes the sodium storage in the fluid around the cells. Cells fill with water which causes swelling that affects the nervous system since sodium helps maintain blood pressure and is important to nerve and muscle function. It is also the case that dogs who play in salt water for extended periods of time may ingest too much salt water leading to hypernatremia.
If you have a water-loving dog, or one who will retrieve a toy tossed in the water over and over, you need to monitor their water activity and insist on breaks. Even if they just love playing in the sprinklers or biting a garden hose, watch them for taking on too much water. Even a dog who quickly empties a water bowl following brisk play or exercise is a risk for water intoxication. Wait to refill that bowl until the dog has cooled down and the water they drank has been properly absorbed.
Prevention is obviously the best course of action with this issue. If your water loving dog does however, show any of the above symptoms, get them to the vet quickly. Remember, too, that while this isn't a breed-specific problem, size of the dog matters; smaller dogs and leaner dogs may exhibit problems faster than their larger canine friends.
While it is fun to let your dog run off leash at the beach, resist doing so if they have poor recall and won't leave it and/or drop it on command. Better to keep them on a long line and under your control than to have them racing off, eating things they shouldn't, charging at other dogs and beach visitors, etc. Even if dogs are allowed off leash on the beach you are visiting, don't let your dog's behavior negatively impact the experience of others that are there enjoying the coastline as well.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.