There’s nothing better than sharing a beach day with your best bud. A game of Frisbee, a jog along the water, maybe a quick dip—welcome to doggie paradise.
It’s important to remember, however, that a day at the beach is no walk in the park. From the beating sun to the strong tides, sharp shells to hot sand, beaches are harsh natural environments, especially for dogs.
“Many dogs love the beach, but it can be dangerous if you don’t know what to look out for,” says Dr. Carly Fox, a staff veterinarian at NYC’s Animal Medical Center Emergency and Critical Care Service. “The risks are very real, and some can be deadly.”
Here’s what to consider before inviting your dog along this summer.
If you’ve spent any amount of time at the beach, you know how easy it is to end up with a painful sunburn. What you might not realize is that your dog is at risk, too—especially if he has lighter coloring or a thinner coat. “Dogs can get sunburned just like people can,” says Fox. “For any extended period of exposure, you should be using a dog sunblock and have access to shade.” (Any pet store should have multiple sunblock options.)
You’ll also want to keep a close eye on your dog for signs of heatstroke, including vomiting, diarrhea, excessive panting and drooling, and uncoordinated movements. Even if you’re cool and comfortable, your dog may be overheating. “Dogs are more prone to developing heatstroke because they can’t expel heat as easily as we can,” says Fox. “Dogs don’t sweat—people always forget that.”
Breeds with flat faces—such as boxers, bulldogs, and Boston terriers—are at an increased risk of heat complications, notes Fox, as they have more trouble panting to cool down. No matter the breed, make sure to provide plenty of fresh water, pack a large beach umbrella or canopy for guaranteed shade, and closely monitor your dog for any signs of distress.
Dogs experiencing heatstroke need to be seen by a veterinarian immediately, as the complications can be deadly. As you make arrangements to transport your dog to the vet, move him to a cool, shaded area, and place a cold wet towel around his head and neck, being careful not to cover his mouth, nose, or eyes
Nobody likes hot sand—dogs included. “If you’re walking barefoot on the beach and the sand is too hot, it’s too hot for your dog, too,” cautions Fox. “It’s easy to burn their paw pads.”
To avoid paw injuries, Fox recommends going for walks and runs by the water where the sand is cooler, and having a large towel for your dog to lay on. If your dog is tolerant of footwear, consider adding a pair of beach booties to his summer wardrobe—these will protect him not only from hot sand, but from sharp shells, stones, and glass as well.
The real hazard with sand, however, comes when it’s ingested and obstructs a dog’s intestines. Sand impaction is one of the most dangerous summer complications that Fox treats at the Animal Medical Center. “Some dogs will eat sand, but they can also ingest too much sand just by picking up a ball while playing fetch,” she says. “It gets stuck in the intestines just like an object and can be really dangerous.”
If your dog is playing with toys on the beach, brush them off regularly and avoid any that have deep groves where sand can accumulate. Signs of sand impaction include vomiting, refusal to eat or drink, and lethargy. If you suspect your dog has consumed sand, he needs to be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Some dogs are natural swimmers. Others, not so much. Before you let your pup chase the waves, make sure he’s seaworthy.
“What you want to consider is experience, breed, and ability,” says Fox. “I have a French bulldog, so I’m very conscious of this—his body is not meant for swimming. If you live in the city and your dog has never been to an ocean or pool, you want to keep that in mind, too. The same with an older dog, or a dog with health concerns.” Rip tides, undertows, and rough waters can be dangerous to any dog, so even if your Lab has Michael Phelps-level skills, make sure to check the local weather report, obey any posted signs, and check in with the beach patrol.
Although a life vest isn’t a substitute for vigilant dog parenting, it can be a valuable second line of defense. Some models are more robust than others, so make sure your vest has floatation features under the belly, sides, and back. Select a bright color so your dog is easily visible in an emergency, and look for a vest with sturdy handles in case you need to pull your dog out of the water. If it’s a hot day, don’t keep the vest on for extended periods of time, as it could lead to overheating.
Whether or not a swim is on the afternoon’s agenda, make sure your dog doesn’t lap up any ocean water, says Fox. “You want to avoid this at all costs,” she says. “The influx in sodium in salt water can cause sodium levels in the blood to rise super high and cause salt toxicity, which needs to be treated by a veterinarian immediately.”
Signs of salt toxicity, which is potentially deadly, include vomiting, diarrhea, lack of coordination, and seizures. One way to avoid it? Pack plenty of fresh water for your dog (as in, more than you think he could possibly need) so he’s not tempted to get a drink from the ocean.