Pet Life Jackets Just Another Accessory or a Necessity?

I have mentioned pet life jackets before on this site as they relate to overall safety in the summer and around water. This article examines pet life jackets more closely and will hopefully help pet owners decide if a life jacket is a good idea for their pet(s). I’ve decided that they are a great idea for my dog, Sophie.

All dogs know how to swim, don’t they?
No, they do not! This is a common misconception, probably helped along by the swim stroke referred to as the “dog paddle.” Some breeds do not enjoy being anywhere near water and some breeds that have low body fat (Greyhounds, Whippets, etc.) may have a much more difficult time staying afloat and regulating body temperature. Fear and anxiety in the water, as when a pet falls in unexpectedly, can hamper normal respiration and swimming ability as well. Waves, undertows, currents and fast-moving rivers can overtake even the strongest swimmer. Wearing a life vest may be the difference between life and death.

Of course, some breeds live to be in the water, such as the Retrievers and Labradors out there. However, even these “water dogs” can have trouble if they are elderly, sick, or overweight and out of shape. Fatigue can set in, and no matter how good of a swimmer they are, they may tire out and be unable to stay afloat. I am sure that many people can relate to occasionally overdoing it as far as exercise now and then. Some people have even experienced medical emergencies from being out of shape and doing too much. Like their human counterparts, many dogs (and cats) lead a much more sedentary life style these days, and gasping for breath while in water is not a good way to assess fitness levels.

Have dog, will travel!
Pets are part of the family, and more pets than ever are taking vacations with their families. For those that travel to lakes, rivers and the coastal areas with their pets, it is a good idea to stop and think about your pet being near water.

I have a mixed breed dog named Sophie who loves the water. She takes frequent dips in the pond, loves to swim in the lake and doesn’t even mind a nice cooling bath in the summer. So I didn’t really worry about this particular dog needing a life jacket. While at the lake last weekend, she eagerly jumped in our little boat from the beach. She is very athletic and in good shape. As she sailed around the docks with my husband to meet the rest of the family, she got very excited and anxious seeing the rest of “her people” on the dock.

Before anyone could think, she leaped from the boat to the dock. Normally this wouldn’t be a big problem, but… she missed. The combination of her pushing off from the boat, the boat heading for the dock, and the dock moving from waves meant that as she was underwater, and the dock and boat closed right over her submerged head!

We grabbed her quickly as she popped up out of the water, and everything was OK. But it was scary. I realized that while she loves swimming with her family nearby, she gets nervous when we are doing different things; some of us on the dock, some of us in the boat, or some of us swimming. This leads to unpredictable behavior from our excitable dog.

After this incident, on went the life jacket for Sophie. At first, we used a vest made for humans, but then purchased a dog-specific life vest. It offers a better fit and handles that make lifting her out of the water much easier. Sophie seems to appreciate the additional lift from the vest and I appreciate the piece of mind!

If you are considering a life vest for your pet, talk to other boaters and pet owners. The US Coast Guard, which regulates human life jackets, does not regulate vests for pets, so be sure to have your pet fitted for the vest that will work best. Dogs in particular come in every shape/size/weight, so be sure to get accurate measurements for a good fit. There are many jacket styles out there and the materials used have different levels of buoyancy in the water. I do not recommend leaving your pet unattended while wearing a life vest at any time — they can be quite hot to wear if not in the water and your pet may chew or become entangled in the vest if bored or wanting to escape.
By Janet Tobiassen Crosby, DVM

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