Dog Swimming & Safety Tips for the James River

dog swimming James River
One of the best things about the city of Richmond is the James River. Not only is it an amazing resource for humans to go swimming, rafting, fishing, and kayaking, but it’s also a great place to take your dog for an afternoon of playful exercise.  There are a lot of dog-friendly water locations along the James River to take your dog for a refreshing swim, some of ours include:

On a sunny day, the river is packed with people and dogs looking for a place to cool off. I’m the one you’ll see propped up on a rock, holding my little furry friend, glaring down into the water wondering if we should venture in. I admire those free-spirited sorts of individuals who are not at all intimidated by adventure, but I’m the skeptical one… always questioning things, always worried about protecting my pup. It kind of takes the joy out of it sometimes, but am I wrong? Not really…

What should we do to make sure that our and our pup’s swim in the river is a safe one?

Swimming Basics for Pools and Rivers

Although river swimming has its own unique set of concerns, let’s first take a look at some swimming basics.

  • Make sure your dog can swim Although river swimming has its own unique set of concerns, let’s look at swimming basics first.  We discussed some of these things in our blog entitled,The Pool is Open.  First and foremost, can your dog actually swim? Sometimes in our excitement to have fun with our dog in the water, we forget that not all dogs can swim.  As you will see in the above link, there are several breeds that find swimming either very difficult or impossible.
  • Not all dogs like the water At Holiday Barn Pet Resorts, we have even seen some of retriever guests shy away from the pool. Just like humans, they just are not fond of water, maybe even afraid of it. That sure would put a damper on your day in the sun with your best furry friend, huh?
  • Never let your dog get out of your sight or too far away from you
    We highly recommend leashing your dog if they’re a beginner swimmer or if they aren’t accustomed to the pull of a river current. A new swimmer can easily become overwhelmed.

Here’s another very important tip: Make sure your dog has had obedience training first! If your dog has not been trained to “come” when they’re called, or to obey other basic commands, his safety could easily be jeopardized.

Don’t Underestimate River Currents

A few years back, there was an article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch that gave reasons why the James River can be deceptively dangerous and unpredictable. During this time of the year, it is even more so. Spring rain can quickly make the river higher and it’s current stronger, taking visitors by surprise.

Fortunately, drownings are rare in the James River, but we frequently hear of our firefighters rescuing people stranded out on the James. If it’s that dangerous to humans, think about how hard it would be for our dogs to fight a strong current or to keep their little heads above water when the water level lifts them off their feet. Don’t underestimate river currents. A seemingly safe, slow current can carry you to where you don’t want to go, leaving even very good swimmers unable to reach the river bank.

The Dangers of High Water

High water and strong currents go hand in hand. It is primarily the current that makes the high water dangerous. We should never get in the James when the water is up. Period. In the RTD article, it states that “the hydraulics and power of the river are a lot greater when the river rises above 5 feet…” When the water is deeper, there are hidden obstructions, things like tree branches and logs, that can trap you or your pup. By the way, did you know that life jackets are required on the James when the water level is above 5 feet? We highly recommend a life jacket or vest for your dog. Not just during high water levels, but every time they’re in the water.

Be Cautious of Algae and Possible River Pollution

In 2015, local veterinarians warned dog owners who walk or swim along the James to be on alert of blue-green algae. Algae blooms are natural occurrences and can grow when weather and water conditions are “just right”, particularly in the summertime. If your dog ingests blue-green algae, he may experience vomiting, drooling, tremors, seizures, or respiratory paralysis that can very quickly lead to death. Despite our best efforts, the James River will experience algal blooms from time to time. Paul Bukaveckas, a professor from the Department of Biology and Center for Environmental Studies at VCU, confirmed last month that Algal toxin levels in the James are currently low and therefore not likely to be of concern for people who may be exposed via recreational contact. Thank goodness!

This past year’s James River Association’s biennial State of the James report states that the health of the river has definitely improved over the past year. Yay! We are lucky to have so many conscientious, concerned agencies working hard to make the James a safer place for aquatic life and for all of us. But even in the best of circumstances, river pollution will always exist to some degree. Fecal bacteria are among the most common pollutants in the river. It comes from runoff from farm manure and leaking sewers. The never-ending stream of stormwater into the James contains oils, pesticides, fertilizers, pet waste and other pollutants and detergents. Reports of industrial toxic chemicals, although minimal, will pop up in the news from time to time. We need to consider this kind of “nasty stuff” when we allow our pups to frolic in the water. Ingesting polluted water can cause a variety of gastrointestinal issues and perhaps worse.

Keep An Eye Out for Snakes

We have been advised that any snakes you may see swimming with you in the James River are not venomous… but you’ll still find me hightailing it to dry land, dragging my pup behind me! Regardless of what is or is not swimming in the water, be on the lookout for snakes on land around the river bank. Copperheads are of a particular concern in our area, and they love living near water (but not in it). If you or your pet is bitten by a copperhead, do not wait to seek medical treatment. Their venom is actually pretty mild, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t do some harm. The longer you wait, the worse it will get.

Other Safety Tips to Consider When Taking Your Dog for a Swim in the River

  • Look out for glass and other sharp objects – before plunging in, check the river basin for glass, broken bottles, and other sharp objects that can puncture your pup’s paw pads.
  • Pack a first aid kit – throw one in your backpack containing antiseptic, sterile cleansing solution, cotton balls, bandages, hydrogen peroxide, and other items that may be helpful should an injury occur.
  • Carry fresh water for your dog to drink – discourage them from drinking from the river.
  • Take frequent breaks – you want to make sure your dog doesn’t overexert himself.
  • Avoid stagnant water – make sure you don’t let your dog swim in standing water where it’s not constantly flowing with fresh water. Also, avoid anywhere there’s a film or sludge on top of the water.
  • Check the conditions of the river before you head out of the door – visit River conditions or River watch for details.
  • Don’t go alone – let someone know where you are or make sure there are other swimmers in the area.

Give Your Dog a Bath After They Go Swimming in the River

After swimming, it is most important to give your dog a good bath. If a bath is not immediately feasible, a thorough rinsing is recommended, and then bathe him as soon as possible (or drop him off at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts for a good scrubbing!). Get that nasty stuff out of his fur! As you wash your dog, check their paws for any cuts or abrasions. Then dry their coat to avoid hot spots. Don’t neglect his ears… the longer that river water lingers in your dog’s ears, the greater the chances of fungal, yeast or bacterial growth. Gross.

We certainly don’ t intend to be a “Debbie Downer” when it comes to enjoying a day at the river with your dog. We just want you to be informed so that you and your pup will be safe. The James River is an excellent destination for recreation! Go. Have fun!

For more information on water-related illnesses for dogs, check out this slideshow on PetMD.com.

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