Water Intoxication in Dogs: What It Is + Best Prevention Methods

Water Intoxication in Dogs
Wyatt Robinson
Written by Wyatt Robinson

Water intoxication in dogs is not quite a very common incident which makes it one of the least understood illnesses that a pet could have. It is caused by water and perhaps this is why it is commonly ignored since water is quite a harmless substance. Who could think that drinking it in certain amounts can cause immediate death? As pet owners, we know that water is an essential part of a dog’s diet and we presume that dogs cannot possible drink more than they could take.

Just like humans, we tend to think that dogs also possess that innate ability to learn their limits and just stop drinking when they are already full. Read our article on the correct amount of water to give your dog if you don’t know just much water your pooch should be drinking.

This condition is also one of those which is least studied by veterinarians and perhaps this is why it is also commonly misdiagnosed.  More often than not, dogs are made to undergo screenings and take medications which not only allow the condition to worsen without giving the dog the appropriate treatment. This is really one of the major mistakes that a veterinarian can make since time is a crucial factor in treating this condition. A dog can die from 3 to 4 hours after they had started ingesting large amounts of water.

What is water intoxication?

Water intoxication is a condition that is brought about by too much water ingestion or by drinking large amounts of water. It occurs not only in animals but in humans as well and there are very few studies which had been conducted about it. Some studies that have been conducted in the past showed that toxicity begins after a dog has drank water which is equal to about one-third of its weight.

Death on the other hand, occurs after about two-thirds had been ingested. Studies have also shown that dogs can die from water intoxication after about 3 to 4 hours (for small dogs) or from 7 to 8 hours for larger breeds.

How Dogs Drink

In the experiments which were conducted in order to study the effects of too much water ingestion on animals, the researchers found the following physical manifestations or effects:

  • Highly diluted plasma with increased volume and lower hemoglobin
  • Rapid loss of large amounts of sodium and chloride in body tissues especially in the bones and blood
  • Swelling of tissues particularly in the liver and the brain
  • Water was found mainly on the gastrointestinal tract
  • Loss of certain minerals and nutrients from the body through urine

This also led to the conclusion that water intoxication not only has to do with the excessive amount of water in the body but also to the rapid loss of chloride which causes an imbalance of electrolytes. When the body loses sufficient amount of these electrolytes, it will maintain osmotic balance by absorbing extracellular fluid.

Since this fluid already is highly diluted with water, the cells will then swell due to the excessive amount of water. This swelling can affect not only the minor organs in the body but even the brain and the central nervous system as well and this is why water intoxication can be fatal.

How can dogs catch this condition?

A pet owner can have the best intentions and unknowingly expose their dogs to water intoxication. Since this condition is life-threatening, prevention would be the way to avoid it and here are some things that you have to do if you don’t want your dog to catch it:

  • Allowing your dog to swim or play in the water for long periods of time. Although there are some dogs which are “experts” when it comes to swimming, there are some who just do not know how to really do it. Some of these dogs tend to swallow water as they swim and some even tend to gulp it down in large amounts as they paddle along. Aside from this, a dog which is tired from playing and swimming for long hours in the water will tend to swim low which is a contributing factor to gulping water. If you live near a lake or a body of water, consider the benefits of in-ground electric fences that we’ve written in our earlier piece to ensure that your pet stays confined to its designated area.
  • Catching toys on or underneath the water. Even if your dog is not swimming on a body of water, they can still ingest a large amount of water if they are playing catch in one. When a dog opens its mouth wide open to get a rounded toy in the water, chances are they will also be drinking some of that water as well. Toys which cause the dog to open their mouth open wide such as tennis balls, may contribute to the amount of water that they may ingest while playing in the water.
  • Allowing your dogs to “bite” water coming from hoses or water sprinkler for an extended period. Although it is good for your dog to love water to stay hydrated, even those which are coming from your garden hose, it is important not to over-indulge them in this activity. The force of the water coming out from the hose can cause your dog to swallow more than they intend to. It is best to control or supervise your dog whenever they are playing with the hose in order to limit water flow and time spent in “biting” the water. Our piece on the best pet water fountain can help you monitor your dog’s drinking capacity and make sure your furball is safe.
  • Drinking a lot of water after a heavy or strenuous exercise. A dog can really be thirsty after doing some heavy physical activity and this can cause them to lap up water more than their bodies can handle at a time. Aside from the fact that they are ingesting water at a faster rate than normal, their kidneys may also not yet be that ready to eliminate ingested water. When the body is under physical stress, hormones are released which tend to shut down the kidneys temporarily.
    Hence, drinking lots of water after a strenuous activity is not really recommended since fluid elimination is not yet functioning 100%.

What are the symptoms to look out for?

If you had taken out your dog to play with water either in a lake, a pool, or even with a hose or water sprinkler in your garden, it is important to take note of these symptoms in case your dog may have contracted water intoxication. Remember that this condition progresses rapidly and your dog can die within hours even if they had only been innocently playing with or in water.

Dog not feeling well

If your dog suddenly looks ill, check to see if they show the following symptoms:

  • Beginning stages
    • Restlessness
    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
    • Salivation
    • Weakness or inability to stand
    • Twitching
  • Later stages
    • Ataxia or uncoordinated muscle movements
    • Dropping of lower jaw
    • Marked twitching
    • Stupor
    • Involuntary urination
    • Convulsion
    • Unconsciousness

What types of dogs are prone to this condition?

All types of dogs can experience water intoxication but there are some which are more vulnerable to catching it. More often than not, a dog’s physical capacity as well as their current state of health will play a major factor in how much they would be affected.

Dog swimming

Some of the dogs which are more prone to suffer from this are the following:

  • Puppies and small or toy dog breeds. These types of dogs can easily suffer from water intoxication due to the fact they have smaller bodies and they also have a smaller capacity for water retention. What could be a regular drink for a large breed, can already be too much for a smaller dog. This is why dogs should always be supervised whenever they are drinking and water should not be left standing in a place that they can easily access.
  • Hyperactive dogs. This is specifically observed in the experiments wherein those who tended to be hyperactive were also the ones who suffered from the symptoms earlier. Compared to dogs which have a more docile nature, these dogs suffered the various types of symptoms linked to water intoxication within minutes. Here’s some tricks and tips on how to calm down a hyperactive dog in one of our articles to make your pooch more tranquil.
  • Dogs that do not have a lot of body fat. Agility dogs and other dogs which have more muscle mass and less fat also tended to suffer from the condition pretty easily. Since they don’t have that excess fatty tissue to help absorb excess fluid, it is absorbed readily by the body and is distributed to the various organs much rapidly. Dogs who exercise heavily were also seen as being more prone to this condition.
  • Dogs that love to swim. Dogs which tend to spend a lot of time swimming are also known to be more prone to suffer from this condition. This specifically pertains to those which rarely take a break or rest from playing and swimming. Leaving your dog to just “do as they please” is definitely not a good idea. As studies have shown, dogs have the mental age as that of a 2 year old human. Hence, why leave that decision to them?

What are the possible treatments?

Even if your dog had already stopped ingesting water, the process of absorption still continues so it is important to administer treatment early on in order to prevent future damage to the cells. There is not much option when it comes to treatment especially since orally administered medications have also proven to be quite futile in dealing with this condition. Since the recommended treatment is to be given intravenously, it is important to visit the nearest veterinary clinic immediately.

Here are some of the best treatments for dogs affected by water intoxication:

  • Saline solution – In the experiments that had been conducted, the researchers found that giving a saline solution through IV had rapidly and effectively reversed the symptoms of water intoxication. Hypertonic salt solutions seemed to be the most effective device against this condition. Saline solutions which had been given orally were not able to bring effective relief from the symptoms.
  • Diuretics – This is also to be administered intravenously and is highly recommended for dogs which have neural problems. This means that an underlying problem with the way in which your pet eliminates urine can also be a factor in water intoxication. The inability to get rid of excess water effectively can add to the rate at which your dog will experience the symptoms as well. Giving your dog some diuretics will help them get rid of the water even if they are suffering from neural problems.
  • Restricting fluid intake – After your dog has gone out of the water, do not allow him or her to drink any more water as this can add to his already bloated state.

How can you prevent water intoxication?

As stated before, prevention is much better than treatment of this condition. Here is a list of things that you can do in order for your dog to avoid water intoxication and in order to enjoy your pet’s company much longer:

  • Supervise your dog’s water-related activities. This means being there to control whatever your dog may be doing in the water. It is not a good idea to just leave your dog in the water since they can just get out when they want to. First and foremost, there are dogs which are not excellent swimmers and may tend to get tired easily. Secondly, you must be there to limit the time that they spend in the water. You should never allow your dog to spend more than 15 minutes straight in a body of water. Giving your dog a rest or a break after 15 minutes will give them time to eliminate any water that they may have drunk while swimming or playing.
  • Bring them regularly to your vet to check their renal health. Since kidney health is important to proper fluid elimination, it is necessary to have your pet regularly checked to make sure that they are functioning properly.
  • Buy toys that have a flat and not a rounded surface. If your dog loves to play catch in the water, then try to find a flat toy instead of rounded ones. This will help keep your dog’s mouth shut and will lessen the chances of him gulping large amounts of water as he tries to retrieve the toy.

What is the worst that can happen?

Once your dog shows any of the early symptoms of water intoxication, it is extremely important to bring them to the vet in order to get the proper treatment. Any delay can definitely lead to your pet’s untimely death.

You may be asking, how such a harmless substance can be that deadly to a dog well this is how it affects them. If your dog had ingested large amounts of water, approximately two-thirds of their body weight, their cells will begin to absorb the excess amount of water in their body. This will lead to loss of minerals especially sodium and chloride which are necessary for muscular activity.

Hence, you will notice that at the onset of the condition, your dog will have trouble coordinating muscle movements giving him a clumsy look. This will also affect the functions of the various organs in his body including his heart and lungs.

If your dog does not receive timely treatment, the swelling will reach his brain and his nervous system. When this happens, there will be a lot of pressure inside the cranium damaging the brain most especially the old brain or the “brain stem.” If the brain stem becomes damaged, respiratory functions will cease which will eventually lead to death.

Summer safety for dog balance

All of these can happen within a few hours especially if you have a small dog. The first symptoms may not seem that serious especially if your dog is really not a whiner if they are feeling sick. They may just salivate and lie down while the condition continues to worsen and owners may tend to think that everything will turn out fine. This is not the right time to relax and let things take care of themselves.

What you need to do is to bring your pet to their vet and tell them that they had been spending some time on water when this happened. This will help your vet to diagnose the condition more properly instead of just blaming it on other types of injuries or medical condition. A lot of dogs have ended up dying since their vets were treating them for another type of disease instead of helping them regain water and sodium balance.

Water intoxication is not a very common incident when it comes to dogs and this is probably why not a lot of people really know about it. It is quite a rare event but when it does happen, it can lead to your pet’s death. Knowing what this condition really is and what causes it however, can help you avoid and treat this problem when it occurs.

Remember that dogs sometimes do not know what their physical limitations are and can continue on a specific activity even when it is already harming them. So, try to restrict and supervise your dog’s actions whenever they will be engaging in an activity involving water.

About the author
Wyatt Robinson
Wyatt Robinson

Wyatt Robinson had a great 25-years career as a veterinarian in United Kingdom. He used to be a member of British Veterinary Association and worked in 3 pet hospitals in London and Manchester. He is shining when he sees his pets healthy and full of energy and it is his duty to help other dog owners to keep their best friends full of life.

  • Daniella Roberts

    Thanks for this well-written article. As a pet owner, I wasn’t aware that there’s such a thing as dog intoxication. But it really boils down to close supervision of our beloved pooch. After all, they are family and are so dependent on us for caring.

  • Daisy Simmons

    I’ve never heard of water intoxication before, but thanks to this article I now do. While I pray that our dogs wouldn’t ever experience this ordeal, it’s best to be well-informed. Will be keeping our dogs in check, and I’ll especially pay attention to the amount of water they come to contact with.

    • It is very important to understand the mechanics of water intoxication, and every pet parent should be aware about it to make sure they prevent this from happening.

  • Tamara Christensen

    Very informative, I had no idea until my bosses dog went to the river with the family for the day, and died. I wish I knew beforehand to warn him. I will definitely watch my dog from now on. Is there any other dog dangers I should avoid? Signed, new pet owner.

  • We appreciate your insights, Daniella. Indeed, dogs are family and they deserve all the care they can get from us pet parents.

  • Hi, Tamara. Water intoxication is one of the most common cases of illnesses in dogs. As a new pet owner, you are on the right track of understanding the possible incidences you might encounter as a new pet parent. You may also want to read more of our articles about dog health and safety, and tell us what you think!

  • Mark

    What to do:  This happened to my dog, 15lb shih-tzu, he loves swimming but eats at the bubbles on the surface of the water
    After a day of swimming he started to throw up, moaning of stomach pains, laying on the couch not moving, I noticed his saliva kept coming out of his mouth I knew right away he was very ill, I googled the condition and then ran to the store for Gatorade, I gave him about 4 cap full of Gatorade, after abou t 20mins he started feeling much better, I then got a bottle of Pedialyte, gave him about 3 cap fulls of that and of course I had to force feed it to him pouring it in his mouth. After an hour he was feeling much better, probably saved his life. Dog swimmers keep a bottle of Pedialyte on hand, this will get electrolytes back in your dog quickly, a cap full of Gatorade could be helpful but not recommended. By acting quickly I saved my dogs life. Pool owners, keep Pedialyte on hand and don’t let your dog swim too long, if your dog takes a break, give him a cap full of Pedialyte in between breaks and most important when you see your dog has constant saliva coming from his mouth it’s a huge red flag and get electrolytes in him/her asap. Be careful  and smart with your swimming dog. It was actually Powerade that has sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium, it could have been the combo of both drinks, sugar is not recommended but in this case my dog got the Powerade, watch carefully and act quickly to get electrolytes back in your dog.

    • We appreciate you sharing your experience and sentiments regarding water intoxication, Mark. This is really a learning experience for everybody.

  • Kim and Mark Miller

    Get electrolytes back in your dog asap. I noticed Pedialyte also has sugar so Gatorade, Powerade should be fine in an emergency situation but try to get Pedialyte also which is highly recommended. We were amazed how fast he got better, our dog is 15lbs and had 4 caps of Powerade, 3 cap fulls of Pedialyte so your dog may need more, you may need to pour it in his/her mouth and if your dog can’t keep it down get to the vet asap, time is a huge factor, we almost lost our dog a few days ago so be careful.

    • Dear Kim and Mark,

      Thank you very much for sharing your tips and experience. This is really something that should be known by more pet parents.

  • Nicole Williams

    My beloved golden mix Callie passed away yesterday due to water intoxication. She loved the water… Lake, pool, shower, hoses… She would make bubbles with herself in the pool and try to catch them with her mouth. We played for two hours yesterday on and off in our pool when she started acting funny. We took her immediately to the vet, and 90 minutes later, she had passed over the rainbow bridge due to water intoxication. She was only two years old and we are devastated. I hope more awareness can be brought to this lesser-known danger for dogs.

    Rest in Peace, Callie Cal.

  • Drew Reiner

    My wife and I were at Lake Erie this afternoon letting our two and three year old cockapoos swim. They swam steadily for two and 1/2 hours with minimal breaks. We had no idea of water intoxication in dogs. As we were walking to the car at 4pm, both dogs were fine, and my wife said to me «I wonder if water intoxication can happen to dogs too?» I said that I doubted it, because we had taken these two swimming since they were six months old and they’d both gone at least 20 times. We got home, which was about a 1/2 hour drive and I began cooking burgers while my wife was feeding our baby twins. She yelled for me to come inside and when I went in, Alli had thrown up water on the bed. This happened at approximately 5:15 PM. We thought this was good and that she would probably feel better because she may have ingested too much water. Still not knowing about this being a severe issue, we just kept an eye on her. She was laying under my wife’s chair as we were eating and I called her name and she lifted her head up and there was a pool of thick drool coming from her mouth. 5:45 PM At that point, I googled water intoxication in dogs and within three minutes I was driving to the vet. I arrived at the vet at 6 pm and they did a blood test on her and had her on an IV by 6:45. They said they were going to keep her overnight as her condition is serious. My wife is going to go there in an hour @ 10pm to check on her. We are praying that she will be fine. I’m so glad that when I walked into the vet I had already read some of this website and that they had a good idea of what was wrong with her. I just wish they didn’t spend 20 minutes doing a blood test before hooking up an IV. We’re praying she will be ok and hopefully this will help others in the future from not making the same mistake. I’ll keep you posted and am sorry for those of you who’ve lost your beloved pets.

  • We are so sorry to hear that, Nicole. We look forward to your recovery during these trying times. Water intoxication is something that is truly lethal and we should be aware what to do when it happens.