First Aid for Drowning Pets

Estimated Reading Time 5 minutes
First Aid for Drowning Pets

Dogs and cats are known to be natural swimmers. In fact, some breeds of dogs have been trained to swim and retrieve things from the water. And while they’re great swimmers in short distances, they still can get in trouble when they swim too far, stay in the water for a long time, or get stuck in an area with steep sides making it difficult for them to climb over. In cases like these, the likelihood that your dog or cat may drown increases dramatically. And as pet owners, we should know how to respond to these types of emergencies. Having the knowledge to address emergencies related to drowning can mean the difference between life and death for our precious pets. Keep reading to learn more.

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What can happen when a pet drowns?

Drowning happens when the pet’s head is submerged underwater for an extended period and their access to oxygen is cut off. This results in the lack of oxygen distribution to organs in the body, including vital organs such as the heart, brain, and lungs.

Prolonged deprivation of oxygen to these organs will cause cell death and can be fatal to pets if not addressed immediately. And though all pets are at risk of drowning, some have a higher risk than others. Older animals tend to have shorter endurance and can’t keep swimming in a body of water for a long time compared to younger pets. They are more prone to exhaustion and drowning when left in the water for too long.

The same goes with very young puppies and kittens, whose endurance and muscle strength are not as fully developed as adult animals. In some cases, these very young animals are not familiar with how to swim and may drown immediately when put in the water.

There are occasions when pets drown but eventually get rescued after some time in the water. Even if the drowning incident was not fatal to the animal, it can still cause health problems later on. The dog or cat rescued from drowning can sustain serious damage to their lungs or brain due to prolonged oxygen depravity.

Symptoms Associated with Drowning in Pets

Even if a pet gets rescued from drowning, that short time they are submerged in water and deprived of oxygen can still have damaging effects. An animal who recently drowned may show signs of weakness, lethargy, and in worse cases, may collapse and lose consciousness.

Profuse vomiting is also a common clinical sign seen in dogs that just recently drowned. If water gets inside the animal’s respiratory tract, it can cause lung congestion and result in excessive coughing, panting, and breathing difficulties. Animals that recently drowned but have developed lung congestion may also appear pale or their gums can turn blue due to the lack of oxygenation.

It’s important to bring a pet to a veterinarian immediately, even after being rescued from drowning for a full health assessment.

What to Do if Your Pet Has Drowned

Drowning is an unfortunate incident and immediate veterinary intervention is needed to help manage the situation. However, there are times when a veterinary professional is not readily available to provide immediate help. In such cases, pet owners must know how to provide first aid treatment to help control the situation just until a veterinarian is available.

The first thing pet owners need to do in case their pets are drowning is try to remove them from the water in a safe manner. It’s important to protect yourself while attempting to rescue a drowning dog or cat. It is not recommended to go into the water to attempt to rescue the animal, but rather throw a rope or a lifesaver or try to hook the pet’s collar and slowly remove them from the water.

Once removed from the water, you need to dry up the drowned pet and provide warmth to prevent hypothermia. Position the animal on its side with the head and neck extended and ideally a little lower than the body to facilitate drainage of water from lungs and avoid aspiration of stomach contents.

To help further remove water from the lungs and stomach, you can pull the tongue out while gently applying pressure on the chest and upper abdomen. If the pet is not breathing, CPR or cardiopulmonary resuscitation is indicated.

How to Perform CPR on Dogs and Cats

CPR in dogs and cats consists of two parts: rescue breathing and chest compression. The concept behind CPR procedures for dogs and cats is similar to that of humans - to provide continuous blood circulation to avoid oxygen deprivation and brain death.

In performing CPR in dogs and cats, a couple of things need to be established first before the procedure can be started. First, make sure the animal is unconscious and is under respiratory or cardiovascular arrest. Performing CPR on pets that are breathing or have a functioning heart can do more damage than good.

Second, make sure that the animal’s airway is open and is not obstructed. You can pry open the pet’s mouth and pull the tongue out to see if there’s any obstruction in the oral cavity. If there’s any obstruction, you can gently remove it using your fingers.

Once any obstructions have been removed, you need to observe for effective breathing, as some animals begin to spontaneously breathe once the airway is cleared. If after 10 seconds no breathing is evident, rescue breathing needs to begin.

Rescue breathing is done by covering the animal’s mouth and blowing air forcefully into its nostrils. In smaller cats and dogs, or brachycephalic breeds, you have to make sure the corners of the mouth are tightly closed while you breathe into the pet’s nostrils.

You should see the chest expand as you blow into the nostrils. Take your mouth away as soon as the lungs are fully expanded. This has to be done around 10 times per minute with short breaks after 3 to 5 full breathes to observe if the animal’s breathing has returned.

For chest compressions, make sure that there’s no heartbeat or pulse rate before starting. For smaller animals, squeeze the chest using one or two hands around the area at the rate of 100-120 times per minute. For larger pets, you need to place your hands on the widest part of the chest wall if they’re on their side or over the breastbone if they’re lying on their back. Push the rib cage firmly (moving it 1.5 to 4 inches inward) at the rate of 100 - 120 times per minute.

You can give rescue breaths every 30 compressions or so to make sure both the heart and the lungs are being stimulated and supported.

These measures can help control the situation and provide more time for the pet until it is seen by a veterinarian.

Read more:

Can Dogs Get Sick From Drinking Too Much Water?

6 Tips to Avoid Common Pet Emergencies in the Summer

Summer Dangers for Cats

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Published: 3/22/2022
Dr. Sheena Haney, Veterinarian

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