It’s our job to prevent overexertion
Traci Delos loved watching her little dog play in the sprinklers. He’d bite at the water and chase it around the lawn, bright-eyed and wiggling, happy as could be. It’s the kind of all-out playing pet parents love to see, and a perfect way for pups to burn energy while staying cool on a warm day.
The day he came in from playing and collapsed, Delos became a sudden expert in something she hadn’t known existed: water toxicity.
“He drank too much water, and that upsets the electrolyte balance enough that it can actually kill them,” she says. The dog was nearly unresponsive when she rushed him to the veterinary clinic. Thankfully, he survived. Since that day, Delos has been passionate about warning people that dogs who swim or play in water — or even who gulp buckets during rough play — are at risk for this uncommon but potentially fatal condition. “Especially for Retrievers and other breeds that tend to overdo it, this is something to watch for. It can cause swelling of the brain and they can die.”
Delos was surprised that she’d never heard of the condition. She’s worked with animals all her life, first as a groomer and sitter, then in veterinary client care and practice management. Today she is hospital administrator at Cascade Veterinary Referral Center in Tigard, OR.
“It’s something I wasn’t aware of,” she says, even after years of experience in emergency clinics and specialty practices. But she’s not alone among well-informed pet guardians who hadn’t heard of some of the deadliest illnesses until their own pet experienced an emergency.
We’re all wary of common maladies like sore muscles and arthritic joints in our weekend warriors. The deadlier dangers though, while rare, are so horrifying that they warrant conversation.
The good news is, simple precautions can lower the risk of sudden deadly conditions. And pets who experience the more common ones, such as exertion injuries, are fortunate to live in the Northwest.
“There aren’t a lot of things I see in human medicine that aren’t available in animal medicine,” says Delos, pointing to treatments such as veterinary acupuncture, massage, cold laser, stem cell and injection therapies, underwater treadmills, and therapy pools.
Stem-cell therapy involves drawing the animal’s own fat cells, harvesting the stem cells, and injecting them back into the patient. “Tissues can regenerate,” Delos says. “Laser therapy and acupuncture are incredible. When I think back to when I was growing up, and what we were able to do for them and what we can do now, it’s just amazing.”
That, along with new anti-inflammatory medications with fewer risks and side effects than those available even just a few years ago, make it a pretty good time to be an aging dog or cat with creaky joints, bulging discs, or torn ligaments.
As with humans, pets typically experience some age-related joint or soft-tissue pain. Some are more vulnerable due to their breed, genetics, or lifestyle. The part we can impact —lifestyle — can be challenging for those who have playful acrobatic cats or intensely ball-crazy dogs with a go-go-go approach to life.
Humans are likely to slow down when in pain, but our furry athletes are often loathe to leave the field. As Delos points out, it’s up to us to watch for signs of trouble and make them rest before overdoing it. Signs can include excessive panting, trembling, being unusually vocal or restless, or frequently re-positioning while lounging or sleeping. Symptoms might not always be obvious, which is another reason to see the doc anytime a pet’s behavior changes.
Delos recalls a woman who felt she had to give up her Retriever who had started showing signs of aggression. “I had to email her and say, ‘Hey, that’s how animals often react to pain, so it’s important to have the vet check that out.’”
Guarding against overexertion can be a daily job for people with highly-driven breeds or working dogs, but simple steps can help prevent wear-and-tear injuries and even more dangerous conditions. Depending on your pet’s age, breed, snout length, and general fitness level, his exercise limits might be a short leash walk or an hour-long game of fetch. Whatever his limit, it’s worth heeding. Especially in extreme heat or cold, and in older animals, the risk is far greater than a potential knee injury.
“A seven- or eight-year old dog can be like an 80-year-old person,” says Delos. Risks can include sudden death from “breathing problems, heart problems, heart attacks — pretty much anything that can happen to an older person from overexertion.”
Thanks to advancing medical care, pets and humans alike are living active lifestyles well beyond middle age, healing from injuries, managing arthritis, and staying in the game. In the end, that means we get to enjoy our furry adventure buddies for more years.
“We’re their guardians,” says Delos, “and it’s important for us to make sure their quality of life is the best it can be.”
Michelle Blake is a Salem, OR-based massage therapist and freelance writer whose work has appeared in national publications. Her husband wants you to know she's a REALLY crazy dog lady too.