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Why Labradors Can Swim in Freezing Water
To understand why Labradors can swim in freezing water, you have to look back to their origins in Newfoundland, Canada.
The area has average winter temperatures of 32°F (0°C) while summer temperatures only reach 61°F (16°C). Fishers trained the dogs to help with fishing, meaning the breed grew up swimming in icy waters, pulling in loaded fishnets, and catching fishes that have fallen off the hook.
Labradors love to swim, and excel at it because they have webbed paws for swimming, while the double coat gives them some protection against cold water. They also have an "otter tail" which helps their swimming ability. Their body features make them more tolerant of winter conditions, arguably one of the reasons they appear to enjoy frosty weather a bit more. That said, you should never shave your Labrador’s coat.
Limitations to Winter Swimming for Labradors
We’ve seen how a Labrador’s features make swimming in freezing water easier compared to other breeds. However, these features still don’t completely counter all the effects of swimming in extremely cold waters.
Swimming in Freezing Water Can Lead to Hypothermia or Frostbite
Allowing your Labrador to swim in freezing waters for too long can lead to fatal hypothermia.
In general, if you can’t last long in the cold water, neither will your dog.
A quick dip for a few minutes in freezing water won’t do any harm to your dog. The thick coat can provide adequate protection in this scenario. On the other hand, allowing the dog to swim for more than 5–10 minutes opens the door to hypothermia and frostbite.
Factors like the dampness of the air, cloud cover, and wind chill can worsen the situation significantly and reduce the window swimming window to less than 5 minutes.
Ice and Snow May Injure Your Dog
While you can probably allow your dog a quick dip in freezing water, thin ice is a different kettle of fish. You shouldn’t allow your dog to swim out to any area of the water with thin ice. Allowing your dog to swim in water that’s not completely frozen and strong enough to hold the dog’s weight is dangerous.
First, the dog can fall through the ice and drown if they can’t claw their way back up. Secondly, broken ice is sharp enough to cause serious injuries.
Similarly, taking your dog out in freezing weather can lead to snow build-up in the dog’s toe pads. The packed ice balls can put your dog in pain and cause injuries.
Freezing Water May Have Pollutants
When choosing to take your Labrador for a swim in freezing water, you also need to watch for water quality issues. Pollutants like deicing road salt wash into nearby water bodies as snow melts.
Allowing your dog to swim in freshly polluted water can lead to health conditions. Platforms like Swim Guide offer advice on water quality. Use it to ensure your dog will have a nice and healthy swim.
Signs of Hypothermia in Labradors
If you choose to take your Lab out to swim in freezing water, you need to watch for the signs of hypothermia. Knowing what to watch for will make it easy for you to take action fast and save your dog.
Hypothermia refers to abnormally low body temperatures. It can be classified as mild, severe, and moderate.
The normal body temperature for a dog is between 99.5°F (37.5°C) and 102.5°F (39.1°C). Your Labrador has mild hypothermia if the body temperature drops to between 90°F (32°C) and 99°F (35°C).
Moderate hypothermia kicks in between 82°F (28°C) and 90°F (32°C), while severe hypothermia kicks in at less than 82°F (28°C).
The best way to confirm your Lab’s temperature is to check with a thermometer, but that’s impractical when you’re out in freezing weather. Therefore, it’s best to know some of the top signs of hypothermia and begin to care for the dog as quickly as you can. Hypothermia signs include the following:
- Low heart and breathing rates
- Fixed and dilated pupils
- Loss of coordination
- Pale gums
Signs of Frostbite in Labradors
In extremely cold weather, your dog’s extremities can develop frostbite. The ears, tail, and feet are the most affected, but the skin can turn pale and feel very cool to touch. Frostbite must be treated as fast as possible to keep the tissue in the affected part of the body from dying.
Otherwise, the affected part may need to be amputated.
Warm towels are useful for heating the affected areas, but it’s not enough. Get your Labrador to a veterinarian as quickly as you can if you suspect signs of frostbite.
How To Care for Your Labrador After a Cold Swim
Regardless of whether your dog is showing signs of hypothermia or not, you need to take steps to warm them up immediately after a dip in freezing water.
Here are steps to take to care for your Lab after a cold swim:
- Dry your dog with towels and put them in a warm environment (such as your car).
- Keep your dog wrapped in a blanket.
- Give your Labrador warm fluids like warm water or chicken broth.
- Leave the blanket on for up to 45 minutes.
If you are seriously concerned, you should get your Lab to the vet as soon as possible.
Other Safety Tips To Keep in Mind
- Let your dog swim in freshwater to ensure they won’t drink salt or river water. Water from such a source exposes your dog to parasites.
- Put away the collar before your dog goes underwater. Plants and debris can get entangled in it and injure your dog or cause them to drown.
- Don’t take your dog to waters where the tides are strong.
- Bring plenty of towels. You’ll need them to warm your dog up after swimming.
- Bathe your dog after swimming to wash off any skin irritants.
- Only take your Labrador for a swim in freezing water if your dog is healthy, has a good store of body fat, and is very active. Dogs with heart or kidney diseases and those with Diabetes or Cushing’s disease struggle to regulate their body temperature. They are at risk of fatal hypothermia in freezing water.
- Keep senior Labradors away from all kinds of swimming, except when they’re closely supervised.
- Don’t judge water temperature with the predominant air temperature. The water is almost always colder than the environment.
- Keep an eye on the duration of the swim. It’s easy to lose track of time when your dog is seemingly having a good time in the water.
Labradors can swim in freezing water as long as they are healthy, young, and active. Also, only Labradors already used to regularly swimming should go into freezing water. Once your dog is inside the water, keep an eye on a timer, and be sure to pull out your dog after 10 minutes of swimming.
If you notice any signs of hypothermia or frostbite, take all the right steps to warm your dog up as quickly as possible before driving to a veterinarian for comprehensive checks.
About THE AUTHOR
Mark is the founder of Everything Labradors and a husband and father of 3. He enjoys spending time with his family, including his dog Molly, a Labrador/Golden Retriever mix. He’s a big fan of the outdoors and loves to travel to new places.Read more about Mark Brunson