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Safety for dogs when out and about

Just like us, dogs have a strong need to get out and about, which means leaving the house and backyard and exploring the world. This is crucial for their mental and physical health. Dogs thrive when they can exercise, enjoy the fresh air, investigate new areas, play, greet others and enjoy the sights and smells around them. Walking with their human social group is also great for bonding.

In fact, this is a key need for our pets yet sadly, one of the biggest welfare problems for dogs in Australia is not getting enough opportunity to exercise and socialise with people and other animals. Approximately 40 per cent of Australian dogs are not walked daily and a similar percentage are overweight or obese. The health impacts of not having a daily walk (and preferably two) include metabolic, musculoskeletal and cardiovascular problems, not to mention potential behavioural issues due to the sheer frustration of being cooped up!

Why is it important to identify hazards for dogs when out?

As responsible owners, we know the importance of spending quality time outdoors with our dogs. But before setting off, it’s important to be aware of any potential hazards, so you can reduce the risk of your dog getting into mischief. Like children, dogs are dependent on us to look after their every need. And as with children, even the most behaved and well-educated dog can be excitable and impulsive, so we need to be prepared to prevent any mishaps!

Key considerations to make

In readiness for launching your dog’s social life, you must first make sure they are microchipped, wearing a collar with up to date identification details and registered with the council in case they get lost. They will also need to be fully vaccinated with up-to-date parasite prevention, so consult your veterinarian about this. And, if your dog is unwell or is on medication that reduces their immunity, ask your veterinarian about suitable options for outings and other stimulation.

Off-leash dog parks

Off-leash dog parks are popping up in most areas and can be lots of fun for you and your furry friend. They offer dogs the opportunity to explore, race around, socialise and play with other dogs, and some include canals or beaches where they can enjoy a swim. These parks are also very popular with owners, because they provide a great setting for games and training. Some even have caf├ęs where you can meet up with friends and host doggie birthday parties! 

However, these parks are not supervised, so it’s up to the public to make sure everyone has a safe experience. This is where responsible dog ownership is so important. There is no screening process for entry to an off-leash dog park, so if someone brings a dog who is poorly socialised, unwell, aggressive, or lacks basic training (such as coming when called), this can lead to issues. Dogs who are fearful or have anxiety problems can feel very threatened by the experience of unfamiliar dogs being around them.

To make sure you and your dog enjoy the benefits of an off-leash dog park, start by asking yourself whether your dog has already had some positive socialisation experiences with other dogs, is reliable at returning to you when called and is free from problems such as anxiety or aggression. If the answer to any of these questions is ‘No’, a safer option would be to find supervised opportunities for socialisation. Doggie day care or reputable training classes are great alternatives.

If you do take your dog to an off-leash park, some tips for having a safe and enjoyable time are to avoid dog parks that are over-crowded, look for parks that have different sections for large and small dogs, and monitor your dog’s interactions with other dogs at all times. You can tell from their body language whether they are stressed and defensive and need to be taken home on a leash or are having the time of their life!

Water safety for dogs

Not all dogs love to swim, but when they do, it’s hard to deny them the opportunity. Some of the best family holiday memories include beloved dogs paddling beside us or trying to chase the tide. Swimming is great exercise for dogs and cools them down in the heat. There are also lots of water games you can play with them to make the experience fun and bond with your dog even further.

As with all outdoor settings, the water has its own risks to be aware of. Beaches have all manner of items that could seriously injure your dog if ingested – food scraps can cause a gut infection and fish hooks or seaweed (to name a few) can cause life threatening intestinal blockages. Natural waterways have wildlife that could bite and potentially poison or seriously injure your dog, including jellyfish, stingrays, snakes or even sharks or crocodiles.

Dogs become very thirsty when they exercise and may try to drink the water they swim in but it’s important to know that chlorinated, salt, brackish or stagnant water can make them sick. Sunburn is a painful risk for dogs with unpigmented skin, such as on the nose, and repeated exposure may lead to skin cancer. Likewise, a dog walking on hot sand is at risk of a burn injury to their food pads. And while many dogs are great swimmers, yours might not be and may be at risk of drowning, particularly if they are Greyhounds, short-legged breeds such as Dachshunds or short-nosed breeds such as Bulldogs or Pugs.

Any time your dog’s outing involves swimming, supervise them closely at all times, don’t allow them to swim into danger zones such as rips, investigate any natural hazards that can be avoided and be sure to provide shade, plenty of fresh drinking water, doggie sun screen and a life-jacket. And if swimming is new for your dog, it’s best not to start off at the beach – try teaching them the ropes in a makeshift pool or another small waterway (with their life jacket on!). And don’t forget to give them a good rinse down after their swim to remove any chlorine or salt.

Heatstroke 

A vital consideration for all outings is to avoid heatstroke. By now, most people should be aware that it only takes six minutes for a dog to die in a hot car, even on mild days, and that dogs must never be left in this situation. It’s also important to remember that this life-threatening condition can occur at any time your dog’s body temperature becomes dangerously elevated. The risk factors for heatstroke are high temperature and humidity, excessive exercise, lack of air flow and lack of access to shade (especially when in direct sunlight) or drinking water. These conditions can occur anywhere, not just in the car – at home, on walks, at the beach, at dog parks and even while swimming. The risk is even higher for dogs with flat faces, pre-existing health conditions (such as heart or breathing problems) or dogs who are obese, have long thick coats or are very young or old.

The good news is that heatstroke is preventable if you take the right precautions to keep your dog safe when they are out and about. Firstly, avoid taking them out in very hot or humid weather, and restrict your outings to periods when temperatures are lower, such as first thing in the morning or in the evening. Avoid walking on hot pavements or other surfaces, and stick to cool shady areas, even when at home. Make sure your dog always has access to good air flow to assist with panting, and lots of fresh water, with extra to spare in case of spillage! And remember there will always be some days when it’s safer for your dog, and for everyone in the family, to stay inside for protection from hot, humid conditions.

If, despite taking these precautions, you notice your dog showing any signs of heatstroke, such as excessive panting, salivating, agitation, confusion, breathing difficulty, changes to gum colour (pale or bright red), vomiting, weakness, muscle tremors, seizures or collapse, seek immediate veterinary treatment.

Conclusion 

Outings with your dog are essential for their physical and mental health. They also strengthen that special bond you have and will bring you both hours of joy. Being aware of the potential hazards your dog could face when out and about, and planning ahead to avoid these, is the best approach for preventing unexpected injuries or health problems.

Looking after our beloved pets is always our first priority. You can help protect yourself from unexpected veterinary bills with RSPCA Pet Insurance.