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Understanding Water Intoxication in Pets

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Imagine this scenario: It’s a warm, sunny Saturday so you and your dog head to the lake. The next few hours are filled with swimming, playing fetch, and enjoying other water activities. When it’s time to head home, you notice your dog is a bit sluggish and wobbly. He’s probably just tired from the unusually active day… But in the morning, your dog only seems worse. You rush him to the local animal emergency hospital. Maybe there was something in the water? Or perhaps he ate something toxic on the beach? Once the bloodwork is complete, the veterinarian confirms the diagnosis. Water intoxication.

Water intoxication? Like when something in the water is toxic, such as blue-green algae?

No, it’s not like blue-green algae or similar toxins. Water intoxication is when the water itself is toxic after being consumed in large quantities. Although rare, Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota does tend to see a few water intoxication cases in dogs every summer. The typical story is similar to the scenario above where a dog was swimming in the lake all day and then became lethargic and wobbly. These are usually the initial signs of water intoxication.

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How does water intoxication occur?

The body maintains a very delicate balance of electrolytes in the blood, cells, and the fluid between the cells. When large amounts of water are consumed, this balance can be disturbed. Too much water causes sodium levels in the blood to become too diluted. However; the sodium levels within the cell are still high and as water enters the cells in large amounts, the cells swell. Given time, the electrolyte-water balance will be restored by the kidneys.

The concern though is when that large intake of water causes increased pressure within the skull. The brain is encased by the skull so it doesn’t allow much swelling to occur before the pressure on the brain causes symptoms like vomiting, lethargy, loss of balance, seizures, coma, and even death.

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How is water intoxication treated?

Your family veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital can control symptoms by using medications to prevent vomiting and seizures. They can administer treatments to decrease that pressure within the skull by correcting the electrolyte-water imbalance in the blood through controlled electrolyte fluid IV therapy.

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The best way to avoid water intoxication is to prevent your dog from consuming too much water. Always monitor your dog closely while in the water. If your dog is frequently lapping up water while swimming and has increased urination, then it’s time to take a break from the lake for an hour or so.  If you do notice any odd behavior after a day at the lake, contact your family veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital for advice.

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