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The Beach Dogs

You’ve seen it in commercials, you’ve embraced it on film: A man jogs down the beach at dawn, his trusty retriever darting in and out of the foamy waves that lap the shore line. A woman strolls languorously through the receding water against a crimson sunset, damp pants rolled above her ankles, as her faithful terrier paws a feisty crab. Some one watches longingly from the porch with a coffee mug/wine glass/margarita in hand. It is the Beach Dog Fantasy.

The reality is that both dawn and dusk are fine times to stroll with your dog on the beach, and often the times that many public beaches allow off-leash dogs. But there are a number of dos and don’ts for beach-bound canines. The first is to know the beach rules, which are usually posted at the access point or are available by calling the municipality. “From September 15 to May 15, no special permit is needed,” says Dr. Kim Traugott of the Veterinary Clinic of East Hampton, NY, where the rich and famous often come to summer with their pets. But from Memorial weekend to Labor Day, it is the responsibility of the owner to be aware of regulations or pay fines for negligence.

Once you hit the sand, there are several precautions to take. Adequate water and shade is required during hot summer days to prevent sunstroke and dehydration. And “dogs can get sunburn,” says Dr. Traugott. “Whenever nonpigmented, unhaired skin is exposed to sunlight, radiation damage can occur. Topical sunscreens can be used on the nose, tips of ears, and unhaired skin.” She recommends sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or greater, applied 3-4 times a day.

“Dietary indiscretion is also a problem, as some dogs view a trip to the beach as a seafood buffet…[they] will eat sand and end up with a sand impaction or sand colic. These conditions are usually treated with fluids and Laxaire (a petroleum-based product also used for hairballs in cats,” says Dr. Traugott. “Drinking saltwater can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and in extreme cases, salt poisoning which can lead to seizures.” If that isn’t enough to daunt you, parasites, such as fleas and ticks, are also an issue, as are intestinal parasites that are transmitted by feces.

“A point of concern,” says William H. Miller, Jr, VMD DACVD, Professor of Dermatology at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine “is when a dog spends lots of time in the water each day… [they] frequently end up with a dry coat and dark coat colors will bleach out. The only way to prevent this is to stop the swimming. Some swimmers will get ‘swimmers ear’ – an otitis externa usually due to Malassezia yeast overgrowth. [This] infection can be prevented by cleaning the ears frequently with an acid pH ear solution [or] anti-yeast medications but the response to treatment often becomes less rewarding as the number of infections increases. In these cases, the swimming must be stopped or the dog is a candidate for ear surgery.”

Enjoying the fresh ocean air together, humans and dogs sustain similar beach injuries such as stepping on glass, corneal ulceration from vigorous play (a thrown stick in the eye), and conjunctivitis from sand in the eyes. There has also been the occasional fishhook through the face. Dr. Traugott cautions owners not to try and remove the hook, but to seek veterinary intervention, because some dogs may require sedation for safe removal.

Good canine social behavior will also enhance the experience for all parties involved. Behavorist Dr. Katherine Houpt of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine says an aggressive dog should never be allowed off leash in a public area and even “if the dog is non-aggressive, a leash should be with you at all times in case you need to restrain the animal from people who are frightened. Non-aggressive dogs may not listen to verbal commands when they are surrounded by others… Social dominance/submissive and sexual behaviors are likely to surface and access to people, food, the ocean, and other dogs will most likely cause a high arousal state. This may result in mild to severe dog fights,” says Dr. Houpt. “A dog may exhibit certain behaviors within a group, i.e. aggression, barking, chasing or mounting that it may not exhibit when alone.” She also points out that if you are worried about your dog’s safety in the water, a harness will allow you to pull him out without injuring him. It is also not appropriate to bring a female in heat.

So, if that fantasy of playing on the beach with your favorite canine friend, as the sun glistens on the horizon and the gulls swoop low over the whitecaps still lingers, remember that with just a few precautions, it is safe to go into the water!

Originally published June 1st, 2005 on DogWatch Newsletter, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine

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