Saltwater: A Hidden Risk to Your Dog at the Beach

saltwater toxicity in dogs

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dogs who visit the beach can become sick, or even die, from consuming too much saltwater
  • Saltwater poisoning often goes unnoticed until the symptoms have progressed to a life-threatening level
  • Symptoms of saltwater poisoning in dogs include increased thirst, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, disorientation, tremors, seizures and death
  • If you suspect your dog has consumed too much saltwater, seek emergency veterinary care immediately
  • Salt poisoning, also known as hypernatremia, may be treated with the administration of intravenous (IV) fluids, monitoring of electrolytes, treatment for dehydration, and brain swelling and supportive care

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

A trip to a dog beach in southern Florida turned into tragedy for a 7-year-old Labrador retriever, O.G., and his owner. The inseparable pair loved playing together at the beach, but after a July 2018 trip, O.G. began suffering from vomiting and diarrhea. The next day, his appetite had dwindled and he was becoming lethargic.

By the next day, O.G. had stopped eating and responding to his owner, then began to suffer from seizures. His owner rushed him to the vet, but it was too late to save O.G., who ended up dying from saltwater poisoning.1

Sadly, the symptoms of salt poisoning may come on gradually, and owners may not equate a trip to the beach with anything dangerous, which means saltwater poisoning often goes unnoticed until the symptoms have progressed to a life-threatening level. Anytime your dog is around saltwater, keep an eye out to make sure he's not ingesting too much, limit trips to two hours and be sure to take frequent breaks and give your pup lots of fresh water to drink in between.2

O.G.'s owner, Christopher Taylor, told WebMD, "He was like any other Lab. He loved to play in the water, loved people, and was a big old goofball … We were swimming and having a good time. We took breaks, and I made him drink fresh water, but we just stayed out too long."3

What Are the Symptoms of Saltwater Poisoning in Dogs?

Salt was once recommended as a tool to help induce vomiting in dogs and cats, but this is no longer recommended because of the dire consequences that can occur if too much is ingested. Excess salt is poisonous to dogs (and cats) and can lead to the following symptoms:4

Vomiting

Diarrhea

Loss of appetite

Lethargy

Walking "drunk"

Abnormal fluid accumulation within the body

Excessive thirst or urination

Injury to the kidneys

Tremors

Seizures

Coma

Death

If you catch the symptoms early enough, salt poisoning, also known as hypernatremia, may be treated with the administration of intravenous (IV) fluids, monitoring of electrolytes, treatment for dehydration and brain swelling, and supportive care.5 Even with treatment, salt poisoning has a mortality rate of greater than 50 percent,6 but offering your pet fresh water immediately may help (and may help to prevent salt poisoning entirely).

In fact, if your dog has ingested too much salt, he'll likely experience increased thirst, which will prompt him to drink more water to compensate. As long as freshwater is available, the effects of salt ingestion will be limited. However, problems can quickly arise if freshwater is not available, such as during a beach day when your dog may turn to drinking more and more saltwater in an attempt to quench his thirst.

After increased thirst, vomiting may be the next clinical sign to watch for if you're worried your dog ingested too much salt. This then progresses to neurological symptoms like tremors, seizures and disorientation. If your pet has lost the ability or desire to consume freshwater, IV fluids will be urgently needed, so seek emergency veterinary care if you suspect your dog has consumed too much saltwater.

The sooner your dog receives treatment, the better the chances of recovery are. If you seek help immediately, before signs of poisoning have started, emetic medications may even be given to encourage vomiting and get some of the excess salt out of your dog's system.

How Much Salt Is Dangerous?

It takes only a small amount of salt to cause toxic symptoms in dogs. For example, a Yorkie or Chihuahua weighing 10 pounds or less could experience poisoning from consuming just 0.05 tablespoons (Tbsp.) or more. For comparison, the following amounts may be toxic in dogs of other sizes:7

  • Dogs weighing 11 to 25 pounds (pug, Boston terrier, poodle) — 0.5 Tbsp. or more
  • Dogs weighing 26 to 40 pounds (beagle, Scottish terrier) — 1.3 Tbsp. or more
  • Dogs weighing 41 to 70 pounds (boxer, cocker spaniel) — 2 Tbsp. or more
  • Dogs weighing 71 to 90 pounds (retriever, German shepherd) — 3.5 Tbsp. or more
  • Dogs weighing 91 to 110 pounds (Great Dane, St. Bernard) — 4.5 Tbsp. or more

These are only estimates, and keep in mind that saltwater at the beach is only one source of salt poisoning for pets. Others include:

  • Homemade play dough or salt dough ornaments
  • De-icing salts (such as rock salt)
  • Paint balls
  • Table salt
  • Enemas containing sodium phosphate

Freshwater Can Also Be Dangerous for Dogs

While you should definitely keep an eye out for salt poisoning if you've spent time near the ocean with your pup, be aware that toxicity can also occur if your pet consumes too much fresh water. Water intoxication is the opposite of saltwater poisoning in that the excessive amount of water dilutes bodily fluids, throwing off the electrolyte balance and reducing sodium levels in fluid outside of cells (extracellular fluid).

Water intoxication, or hyponatremia, causes sodium levels to drop to dangerously low levels. It's a rare condition, but any dogs that love to spend time playing in the water (or drinking from sprinklers or hoses) are at risk. Signs of water intoxication include the following:

Staggering, loss of coordination

Bloating

Glazed eyes

Lethargy

Vomiting

Pale gums

Nausea

Dilated pupils

Excessive drooling

Treatment involves IV electrolytes, diuretics and medications to reduce brain swelling. With aggressive veterinary care, some dogs do recover, but tragically many do not. As with saltwater poisoning, if you suspect your dog has consumed too much freshwater, seek emergency veterinary care.

Playtime at the ocean or lakefront can be great fun and exercise for your dog, but be sure to monitor him closely, take frequent breaks and bring a supply of drinking water for your pet. One of the best ways to prevent both saltwater poisoning and water intoxication is to limit how much time you spend at the beach, and cut the trip short if you observe your pup consuming too much water.